Cattle ranchers cope with losses from Rim Fire


Issue Date: September 4, 2013
By Kate Campbell
Cattle ranchers Tim Erickson, left, and Jessie Riedel evacuate cattle trapped by the Rim Fire in Tuolumne County. The cattle were taken Friday to lower pasture outside the fire zone.
Photo/Kate Campbell
Cattle wait to be evacuated from the Rim Fire in Tuolumne County.
Photo/Kate Campbell
A fresh fire line cut to protect timber owned by Sierra Pacific Industries, which had about 14,000 acres of timber damaged by the fire.
Photo/Sierra Pacific Industries

With the Rim Fire still burning, Tuolumne County farmers, ranchers and loggers now focus on gathering cattle, harvesting crops and protecting timber, while repairing damage to their operations. The wildfire, one of the largest in state history, destroyed grazing land, killed livestock, consumed private timber and damaged essential infrastructure.

"This county has never experienced a disaster like this," cattle rancher Stuart Crook of Groveland said. "We can't even begin to count the losses—the time, cattle, timber and our buildings and equipment."

Crook estimated losses to the ranching community would be "in the millions."

"For us, it's going to take years to recover," he said.

Fellow Tuolumne County cattle rancher Tim Erickson said he still had not been able to locate more than 200 pairs of cows and calves.

"I have no idea what I've lost in terms of fences, feed, dead cattle, timber," Erickson said.

"Fire is a good tool for forest management, but not when the forest has been neglected like this," he said. "I look around and the fire has turned the forest white as snow."

Last Friday, Crook and Erickson were among ranchers who were allowed into the burn area to retrieve some of their cattle that survived the fire.

Faced with a 200,0000-acre burn area, the county's $30 million a year agricultural production has taken a serious blow—how serious is still being tallied. Tuolumne County Agricultural Commissioner Vicki Helmar said it remains too early to compile damage estimates.

"The fire is still out of control," Helmar said Friday, "and we haven't even attempted to put numbers together yet."

During the worst of the inferno, flames shot hundreds of feet into the air and galloped up slopes, across meadows and through trees, doubling the burn area from one day to the next. In the fire's destructive advance, hundreds of head of cattle were scattered, lost or killed.

In addition to timber losses in the Stanislaus National Forest, thousands of acres of private timberland burned, miles of fences were damaged and thousands of homes and outbuildings were threatened.

"One immediate impact in the aftermath of the fire is heavy loss of cattle," Tuolumne County rancher and county supervisor Sherri Brennan said.

She said surviving cattle have been pulled out of scorched grazing allotments and will now have to be sold or rely on expensive hay to prepare the animals for market.

"I know people have been finding pockets in the forest where a dozen or more cattle are dead," Brennan said. "I'm afraid we're going to find a lot of that."

The management strategy used in the national forest to protect water quality and prevent erosion has been effective, she said, and "that's good news, but now much of what we've done to help manage the forest sustainably has been undone."

Rancher Dick Gaiser, who serves as Tuolumne County Farm Bureau president, said he's fortunate his grazing allotment is on the other side of the county from the fire area and did not burn. Gaiser also chairs the Stanislaus Grazing Association, which represents grazing permittees within the Stanislaus National Forest, and said the committee "has been working with those who've been burned over."

"We've made arrangements to transport animals that have been burned but that can still go through the slaughter process," Gaiser said. "So far we haven't had to use this service, but we're still looking for cattle and counting losses."

For ranchers who rely on public forestland for summer forage, the loss of grazing land could create severe hardship. Brennan said Tuolumne County will work with the Forest Service to move livestock back in as quickly as possible.

"What we don't want to see is a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach to entry on a burn of this size," she said.

Meanwhile, the county Farm Bureau is working with the county Economic Development Authority to arrange for hay and cattle feed. The organizations said they are willing to pay market value, though donations would be appreciated, Gaiser said. Those with feed to sell or donate are encouraged to call the county Farm Bureau at 209-984-5922.

Timber producer Sierra Pacific Industries was still cutting fire lines last week to protect what is left of timber on the 20,000 acres it owns in the area, spokesman Mark Pawlicki said.

"We don't have an exact estimate of losses because of the smoke, but we estimate about 14,000 acres have burned," Pawlicki said.

He said the company has stopped harvesting green trees and will begin salvage logging in a few weeks. Salvage timber will go to the company's Standard Mill outside Sonora.

"The smoke is so thick we can't assess losses yet," Pawlicki said. "We're doing rough estimates of the damage."

SPI foresters have been helping firefighters by providing maps and designating firebreaks, he said. The company can harvest burned areas once the fire is out, and will stop harvesting green timber in the area until the burned timber is salvaged, he said.

"This disaster isn't just about Tuolumne County," said Sasha Farkas, who grows apples and timber in the county and serves as a California Farm Bureau Federation director. "The impact will be felt all along the river into the San Joaquin Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area beyond.

"We need to better manage the forests to help reduce the likelihood of catastrophic fires," Farkas said. "I'm afraid the damaged timber on the federal lands won't be salvaged and will rot there. That's what has happened in the past."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

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