Camp Fire scorches Butte County rangeland


Issue Date: November 28, 2018
By Kevin Hecteman
Ranchers Anni Herborn, left, and Mark Foster move a neighbor’s cattle through burned rangeland to a corral where they will be fed hay, as smoke from the Camp Fire blankets the region south of Paradise in Butte County. County agricultural officials estimate the fire burned 30,000 to 40,000 acres of rangeland, and say it also damaged orchards and nurseries.
Photo/Holly Foster

The Camp Fire, deadliest and most destructive in the state's history, has been fully contained, but sorting out the full effect will take a while. That includes the impact on the region's farms and ranches.

Butte County Agricultural Commissioner Louie Mendoza said the 150,000 acre-plus blaze did not burn in an agriculturally intensive area, but that some damage has been reported. Mendoza estimated rangeland losses at 30,000 to 40,000 acres, with buildings and fences damaged. He said he was also aware of about 50 acres of fruit orchards and several retail and wholesale nurseries being affected, but that his staff would await access to the full burn area before issuing an official estimate of agricultural losses.

Holly Foster, a cattle rancher who serves on the Butte County Farm Bureau board of directors, said the region burned in the Camp Fire housed five or six "good-sized commercial operations."

"But for the most part, I think all of us, except maybe one operation, had not moved our cattle yet from our summer locations," she said.

Foster's cattle remain on their summer grounds in Plumas County and will stay there for the time being, she said. They hadn't been moved to Butte County yet because of the lack of fall rains, she said; in a typical year, this would have happened the first week of November.

"We essentially have no feed to go to" in Butte County, Foster said. "We do have some hay stockpiled, just as something we always do as a management policy."

Transportation could be an issue, as Highway 70—the route used by many ranchers who graze their herds in Plumas and Sierra counties in the summer and winter in Butte—was still closed through the burn area as of Monday afternoon, according to Caltrans.

Some livestock evacuated from the fire zone have been housed at the Butte County Fairgrounds in Gridley. Colleen Cecil, executive director of the Butte County Farm Bureau, said feed and hay donations for the animals have been generous.

The California Farm Bureau Federation and county Farm Bureaus have launched relief efforts (see story).

Andrew Fogel of Nationwide Insurance, the exclusive insurance provider of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said one of the company's catastrophe-response units—essentially a claims office built into a semitrailer—traveled to Chico from the company's headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, once it became clear the fire would be a long-term emergency.

"They've been pretty busy every day that they've been open," Fogel said.

Policyholders affected by the Camp Fire should file claims as a first step, using the phone, the website or the mobile app, Fogel said. Those who have lost their policy information should be able to retrieve it by calling the claims center, he said, adding that Nationwide would visit the affected areas as soon as conditions permit.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke planned to visit the fire-stricken region this week to survey the damage. In a conference call with reporters last week, the two Cabinet officers spoke of a need for more active forest management and asked Congress, which is still working on the 2018 Farm Bill, to give their departments more authority to carry out such programs.

The U.S. Forest Service, part of Perdue's department, and the Bureau of Land Management, which falls under Zinke's purview, "want to work together to provide defensible spaces so we don't see the loss of life (and) we don't see the loss of residential or home structures there," Perdue said.

Perdue promoted Good Neighbor Authority, which allows local governments to cooperate with the Forest Service in management of federal forestland.

"The Forest Service would love to expand the Good Neighbor Authority," he said. "We would like to work with tribes and counties on the Good Neighbor Authority to expand that, so that we can all build and manage for healthier forests and fire prevention."

With expanded authority, Perdue added, "we'd be able to get in and restore the landscape where we don't get the water-quality issues from the floods and rains that follow these forest fires."

Zinke said temperatures are hotter and fire season is getting longer, and "there are active forest management principles that we need to go forward on. … One is to remove the dead and dying trees, to thin, do prescribed burns late in the season rather than midseason."

Grazing also has a role to play in keeping fuel loads down, he added.

Gov. Jerry Brown issued an executive order aimed at streamlining recovery efforts in Butte County and in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, which also suffered wildfire damage during November. Among its provisions, the executive order expedites cleanup and removal of fire debris, extends a state prohibition on price gouging and allows fairgrounds and other state property to be used for temporary shelter.

Back in Butte County, Foster said she knows ranchers will come to each other's aid in times of need.

"That's where I'm very thankful that we're a part of that family, so to speak," she said. "That's a very positive thing about being involved in production agriculture—we've got that value system in place, and that network of people that we know if we need it."

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

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