Ranchers tally the toll in wake of huge wildfires

Issue Date: November 1, 2017
By Kevin Hecteman

As California ranchers take stock of their lands and herds in the wake of October's deadly wave of wildfires, the exact scope of the disaster remains to be learned.

"There's still a lot of information coming in, now that everything's kind of died down and people are getting their bearings about them," said Martin Emigh, president of the Napa-Solano Cattlemen's Association. He said he's aware of ranchers who have lost cattle and pasture in the area but doesn't have a tally yet.

Emigh added that his group donated hay to the animal-evacuation center at the Solano County Fairgrounds in Vallejo, and is helping a member who had to evacuate his livestock and now needs hay.

Those who lost pasture land will face additional expenses, and not just for the hay itself.

"If you've got to throw hay on the ground, somebody's got to do it," Emigh said. "If the pasture's all burnt up, you're going to have to throw hay on the ground until we get some rains and start growing some new pasture."

In Sonoma County, rancher Michael Furlong, president of the Sonoma-Marin Cattlemen's Association, said some of his members were affected, with one losing nearly all of his pasture land. His group is putting up $10,000 to help those needing it.

"Without any grass, they're going to have to ramp up their feeding program," Furlong said.

To the north, fires in Yuba and Butte counties spared cattle but cost them much of their winter feed.

"In Butte and Yuba, a lot of that country is what we would call winter range or winter ground," said fifth-generation rancher Dave Daley, president of the California Cattlemen's Association. "Those were really quick-moving fires with high winds, just the same as they were in Napa and Sonoma."

For ranchers in his area, the losses mainly amount to feed and fencing, he said, adding that those who lost feed and fences can count on their neighbors.

"The ranching community is always supportive of one another," Daley said, adding that he's had a lot of calls to the CCA asking about how to help. "There's a lot of good neighbors out there working to help one another. I know in the Napa-Sonoma area, a lot of people volunteered to transport livestock out of the fire and did so."

The fires moved so fast, however, that some people had no time.

"They just had to cut the fences, and hopefully they can gather their animals up later and locate them," Emigh said.

Daley said because ranching is a statewide activity, it often takes the brunt of California wildfires.

"Any place there's been a fire, it typically has impacted our ranching community one way or another," he said.

"It's a statewide issue, and I think Napa-Sonoma really brought it to the forefront," Daley added. "Wherever there's been wildfire, typically it's going to be on rangelands."

Daley said he thinks the fires simply had too much fuel, and action needs to be taken to address that.

"We have such fuel-load problems in this state, because of unwillingness to manage our forests and our open space," he said. "These catastrophic wildfires are going to continue to be problematic. I think that's an inherent issue that we have to deal with."

And, Daley said, that's "another testament to why we need cattle grazing." He called grazing "one of the opportunities to reduce that fuel load, and we got so many areas—whether they're state or federal lands—where grazing has been excluded. It's problematic in terms of contributing to additional fuel load, because we can't graze like we should, particularly in many of the state and public lands.

"Frankly, without fuel-load reduction, I would anticipate more catastrophic wildfire," he said.

Ranchers also spoke of access issues during the fires; roadblocks often prevented or slowed their attempts to check on their animals.

"If you have a substantial number of cattle, you don't want to let them die," Furlong said, adding that ranchers need safe access to their herds.

Daley agreed. He said he understands why access needs to be restricted, but "I couldn't get in to take care of cattle that I had just brought out of the mountains that were five, six miles from the fire," he said.

"The roads were blocked. I had to go across country just to make sure what's going on with the livestock that I'd just been bringing out of our national forest lands," Daley said, "and I'm sure I'm not the only one."

Emigh credited Woodland-based University of California Cooperative Extension cattle advisor Morgan Doran for his efforts.

"He's been outstanding all through this situation with gathering information on different producers that have been affected, and getting the word out there with the government programs that are available," Emigh said.

Among the programs available to ranchers affected by fires are the Livestock Indemnity Program, which reimburses producers up to 75 percent of the market value of animals lost to wildfires or other natural disasters; the Livestock Forage Disaster Program, which compensates those who have federally managed grazing leases they can't use because of wildfires; and the Non-Insured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, which allows ranchers who have applied for coverage to receive compensation for a loss of forage due to wildfire, drought or other natural disasters. One provision of NAP requires that a rancher had to have previously enrolled in the program with the county Farm Service Agency office and paid a service fee. The Emergency Conservation Program helps ranchers rebuild fences and other infrastructure damaged or destroyed in a natural disaster.

A list of wildfire-recovery resources can be found at www.cfbf.com/wildfireaid. The California Department of Food and Agriculture also maintains a directory at www.cdfa.ca.gov/firerecovery/.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.