2015 Brings Fewer Fires but More Damage to Ranchers in West

November 24, 2015 05:00 AM

Wildfires have ravaged the drought-stricken Western U.S. this year, causing millions of dollars in damage and impacting the livelihoods of American ranchers.

This past year of fires has been the second worst in a decade, ranking just behind the devastation of 2006 by just few thousand acres. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, fires from Jan. 1 to Oct. 30, 2015, have wiped out 9,407,571 acres of grazing land and forest. That’s equivalent to the landmass of New Hampshire and Connecticut combined and almost triple the damage seen in 2014 despite the fact that there actually have been fewer fires than normal in 2015.

But the fires that have happened this year have been disastrous.  

The Soda Fire in southwest Idaho was one of the worst after it started on Aug. 10 when lightning struck. Nearly 280,000 acres, mainly Bureau of Land Management grazing land and some private property, was scorched black. An estimated 250 cattle were lost in the Soda Fire.

A view of some of the damage from the Soda Fire. Photo by U.S. Forest Service

These types of wildfires are becoming more commonplace, says Wyatt Prescott, executive vice president of the Idaho Cattlemen’s Association.

These disasters also takes a toll on ranchers who have to find a way to feed their cattle immediately after the fire and impacts them for years to come. “Moving forward, ranchers will be chasing pasture all over the West trying to find enough to get them through until they get back on their range permits,” Prescott says.

For public land grazers, that wait after a fire tends to be two years. During that time, the fuel load of brush undergrowth and grass makes the land just as susceptible another large fire.

“From the cattle industry's perspective, it is just such a waste and shame that we see these catastrophic wildfires,” Prescott says. He adds that ranchers could utilize those resources by putting more cows on those at-risk lands.

Environmental activists have questioned whether cattle and other livestock should even be allowed to graze.

That debate between ranchers and activists over fire management practices came the Idaho Cattlemen's Association “Graze It, Don’t Blaze It” campaign. It has also served as a push to get flexibility from federal land management regulations to allow more grazing.

For example, part of the reason the Soda Fire was so severe was due to the increased grass growth due to a wet spring in the region. With all that extra grass, more cows could have been grazed, but regulations prevented additional livestock. Meanwhile, a dry year often results in cattle being forced to leave federal lands, due to government grazing regulations. 

“We know that we can never stop fires altogether. But if we remove some of those fuels, the fire burns much slower to where firefighters can get in front of them and get them under control,” Prescott.

“Graze It, Don’t Blaze It” was a way for cattle producers to discuss the issue of fire. Image courtesy of Idaho Cattlemen’s Association

Fighting the fires in the West isn’t as simple as spraying water out of a fire hose. It involves a lot of strenuous labor and manpower. For two out of the past three summers, Kansas cattle rancher Glen Collinge has helped fight fires in the West after his family’s stocker cattle are shipped in August. He has worked on a Type 2 initial attack hand crew in states like Montana, Idaho, Utah and Colorado.

“We were in extremely rough country where you couldn’t get any vehicles or equipment into,” Collinge says. Much of the work involves digging fire lines with shovels and cutting down hazardous trees.

Kansas rancher Glen Collinge was one of the many firefighters who helped battle the Tepee Springs Fire near Riggins, Idaho this summer. Photo by U.S. Forest Service

It is far different from the prescribed burns Collinge uses in the spring on native grass pastures. Fire has been utilized in the Flint Hills of Kansas to help fight brush and promote new grass growth. Similar prescribed burns could be used on some federal land to help reduce fuel loads when grazing is not possible.

Prescott says while prescribed burning is an option, there are challenges related to permitting. To even do a controlled burn,a rancher needs an environmental assessment performed. That takes time, and forage conditions could change. There is also the risk of the prescribed fire getting out of control.

Fighting fires can be costly, too. It took $13 million to fund the three-week firefighting efforts of a July 1 lightning caused fire on Ray Sessler’s grazing allotments. The cost to fight the fire near Paulina, Ore. was a fraction of the estimated $1.7 billion in U. S. Forest Service (USFS) funding spent this year nationwide on fire suppression.

Approximately 30,000 acres were burnt, and Sessler was forced to move his herd to winter grazing grounds much too early. He’s been notified there will be no grazing on his USFS permit in 2016. 

“This is not something any rancher looks forward to,” says Sessler, who now has to deal with the extra financial burden of buying winter feed. 

Ray Sessler looks on at his cows and calves that had to graze winter pasture and hay fields starting in July because of a wildfire. Photo by Wyatt Bechtel

Sessler, who is just ending his term as Oregon Cattlemen’s Association president, believes the wildfire problem has grown partially because logging was halted in the area due to activists’ pushback on the spotted owl. Sawmills used to dot the landscape of central Oregon. Twenty years ago, there were six sawmills within a 100-mile radius of the fire near his ranch.  Today, there is just one mill 90 miles away. 

The combination of grazing and logging would go a long way towards reducing the impact of fire in the West, according to Sessler. “Grazing won’t solve everything, but it will help,” he says.

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