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Wildfires multiply ranchers’ woes, scorching range

Issue Date: October 28, 2020
By Ching Lee

With California ranchers already squeezed by shrinking availability of grazing land, the 2020 fire season—the largest the state has recorded—deals mounting uncertainties about where to place their livestock and how to sustain them.

The more than 4 million acres that have already burned in the state this year consumed "a big portion" used for cattle grazing, including public and private rangelands, said Mark Lacey, president of the California Cattlemen's Association.

Lacey, who manages cattle in Inyo, Mono, San Luis Obispo and Kern counties, pointed to blazes such as the SQF Complex in Tulare County and the Creek Fire in Fresno and Madera counties as having "a tremendous impact" on pastureland and livestock.

The North Complex fire in Plumas National Forest in Butte County, in particular, has received much attention in the ranching community because of the "devastating, major loss of livestock" suffered by the association's past president, Dave Daley, Lacey added. In a published account of his experience trying to recover cattle from that fire, Daley reported losing more than 300 head of cattle and a "legacy" that has been in his family for six generations.

Total statewide losses and damages for ranchers remain unknown, as recovery and assessments continue in burned areas, but initial estimates are starting to emerge in areas where fires are contained.

For example, cattle, forage and ranching infrastructure losses from the SCU Lightning Complex fire, which burned 396,624 acres of primarily rangeland in Alameda, Santa Clara, San Joaquin, Merced, Contra Costa and Stanislaus counties, reached an estimated $68.2 million, according to an initial "conservative" assessment by the University of California.

In their calculations, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resource advisors Theresa Becchetti and Sheila Barry reported that damaged or destroyed fencing represented the biggest financial loss, at $33.3 million. They estimated cattle losses at more than $20.2 million, which includes deaths and production losses, and forage damage at $18.4 million. Other losses include $14.5 million for stock ponds and water systems, and more than $1 million for corrals. Their assessment did not include damage or losses to roads, cabins, barns and other buildings.

Becchetti said local Farm Service Agency offices are just beginning to gather data and process funding, and that it will take time before more accurate numbers become available.

With more pastures being converted to other agricultural or urban uses, and as fires claim more land used to raise livestock, Lacey said ranchers are left with "very limited options as far as finding more feed." They could try to find other grazing ground to lease, he said, including moving cattle out of state, but added "that's not real likely," as California and most other Western states have suffered dry weather that has zapped forage this year. Some ranchers may choose to feed hay until rain produces more grasses, but he noted that would be a "fairly costly" short-term option.

As a last resort, ranchers will sell cows, Barry said, noting that most ranchers want to keep their herds, as they have worked to select and develop animals that work well for their ranch, know the range and have a proven performance record.

"The sad part is, it may force people to liquidate some cattle," Lacey said. "We've seen over the past 10 years, as either droughts or fires have impacted ranchers, some folks have not reentered the business."

It remains unclear how the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management will respond to burned areas they oversee, Lacey said.

Historically, there has been a blanket rule of no grazing on federal allotments for two or more years after a fire. However, that policy has been challenged, as research has shown "minimal" or "neutral" impact from grazing one year after landscapes are affected by fire, said Tracy Schohr, UCCE livestock and natural resource advisor for Plumas, Sierra and Butte counties. Decisions on post-fire grazing will depend on factors including location and quality of the range, type of habitat in the area, rainfall, and intensity and timing of the fire, she added.

"There's not a one-size-fits-all approach," Schohr said, noting that after the 2018 Camp Fire, she encouraged ranchers to graze burned pastures at reduced stocking rates the following spring, to control weedy grasses that can quickly take over annual grasslands.

With the state's disaster declaration, Lacey said ranchers who have insured their livestock may be able to recover some losses, such as from the Livestock Indemnity Program.

Going forward, what ranchers really need, he said, is for "state and federal governments to stop just blaming climate change for everything and start coming together with land resource managers and livestock people to figure out how we're going to change the dynamic of letting the state burn up every year."

"I'm not saying climate change doesn't exist," Lacey added. "I'm saying if this is the new norm, if these are the conditions that we expect going forward, then we need to get creative and we need to change what we've been doing."

He lamented past and ongoing litigation by environmental groups that block projects to manage forest fuel loads and improve fire protection, not just for rangelands but for towns and cities. He also emphasized the need for regulatory relief from agencies such as the California Air Resources Board, which places restrictions on how much prescribed burning can be done in a given year. Amending the federal and state Endangered Species Acts would also help with fuel reduction and forest thinning, he added.

"We need Cal Fire to … stop being so much in the business of fighting fire and be more in the business of fire protection and public safety" by doing more offseason fuel reduction, Lacey said.

Furthermore, the Forest Service needs to decide what it plans to do about post-fire cleanup, he said.

"I don't think we can afford to leave that much bare land without doing something with it and stabilizing the soil, so that we don't see a huge amount of erosion or flooding post-fire," Lacey said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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

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