Through the Fire and Flames

December 9, 2015 02:15 PM

Is it better to graze it or blaze it?

Fire season in the West was especially devastating this year. A string of massive wildfires encompassed thousands of acres, displacing cattle and threatening the livelihood of many ranchers. 

One of the worst blazes was the Canyon Creek Complex wildfire that burned 110,261 acres of forest and pasture across central Oregon. The fire affected several area ranchers, including Ken Holliday, who was less than two weeks into grazing his allotments before he had no choice but to drive through flames to open gates and save his cowherd. He owns Holliday Family Ranches, Inc., running 775 cows on pastures and forestland.

The Canyon Creek Complex wildfire started Aug. 12, when lighting struck near one of Holliday’s grazing allotments leased from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) near the Malheur National Forest. The next day Holliday drove his side-by-side into the fire, opening gates to allow his cows to escape. At one point the back tire on the side-by-side caught on fire and had to be put out with an extinguisher.  

Holliday describes the forest as being “nuked” by the wildfire—“it is completely gone.” The fire went through or was near several allotments Holliday’s family grazes cows on from the start of August until late October. At its peak, the fire traveled nearly 10 miles along highway 395 in two hours when it burnt through Holliday’s forest pastures to the edge of Canyon City.

In all, 43 houses were lost to the fire. The sound of the fire was like a locomotive as it went through the canyon, Holliday says. A shed housing a brand new ATV caught on fire and the flames were hot enough to melt the aluminum wheels—aluminum melts at 1,221°F.

Where the flames burned possibly the hottest and fastest was through an allotment housing a group of 12 cows and a bull. The cattle were trapped by fire, and Holliday was unable to open any fence for them to exit. 

Fortunately, Holliday believes the group of cattle were able to seek refuge at a stock pond surrounded by green grass. Several of the cows had hair singed by fire. Three of the cows looked like their eyes had been scorched, similar to the eyes of a welder. Only one cow had a burnt hoof from the fire. The small group certainly was a lucky 13 to make it out alive, and they’re all in great condition now, according to Holliday.

The Canyon Creek Complex fire engulfed approximately half of Holliday’s grazing allotments, affecting 306 of his cows. A large portion of the cowherd was moved four times before reaching the family pastures at the Holliday Ranch headquarters near John Day, Ore. 

The spring calving commercial Red Angus and Hereford cowherd began grazing hay meadows in the valley by mid-August; they typically wouldn’t start wintering until around  late October. 

Holliday was able to put up quite a bit of hay prior to the inferno’s start. The bunker silo has 1,000 tons of haylage, and there is even more baled hay waiting to be stored. He’ll need all of the forage he can get to help compensate for what was lost on the grazing allotments. 

Because of government regulations, it will be two years before cattle can graze on USFS or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) allotments impacted by fire. On top of that, Holliday estimates 26 miles of fence were destroyed on those public lands.

Holliday wasn’t the only rancher impacted by the fire; his older brothers also saw quite a bit of damage. He estimates his brother, Ron, had 20% of his allotments affected, while his other brother, Darrel, lost 90% of his grazing land. While no dead cattle have been found, Darrel was short 19 head on Sept. 4.

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

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, fires from Jan. 1 to Oct. 30 wiped out 9,407,571 acres of grazing land and forest.

On average, during the past 10 years, there have been 68,878 fires and just under 6.5 million acres burnt per year. In 2015, there have been approximately 9,500 fewer fires than normal, but the desolation has been more disastrous.

The Soda Fire in southwest Idaho started just two days prior to Canyon Creek Complex and consumed twice the amount of land. Nearly 280,000 acres composed primarily of BLM grazing land, and some private property was scorched black. An estimated 250 cattle were lost in the Soda Fire.

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

“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, the 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 to another large fire.

“From the cattle industry’s perspective, it is just such a waste and shame we see these catastrophic wildfires,” Prescott says. 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. Out of the debate over fire management with activist groups came the “Graze It, Don’t Blaze It” campaign from the Idaho Cattlemen’s Association. It has also served as a push to get flexibility from federal land management regulations to allow more grazing. 

Part of the reason the Soda Fire was so severe stems from a wet spring in the region that increased grass growth. More cows could have been grazed, but regulations prevented additional livestock. However, in a dry year, government regulations can force cattle to leave federal lands.

“We know we can never stop fires altogether,” Prescott says. “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.” 

Fighting wildfires 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 the front lines as part of a Type 2 initial attack hand crew in states such as Montana, Utah and Colorado.

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

It is much different from the prescribed burns Collinge is familiar with in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Prescribed burns on native grass pastures there 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 permit challenges. To do a controlled burn, a rancher needs an environmental assessment performed which requires time and forage conditions could change. There is also risk of the prescribed fire getting out of control. 

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

Approximately 30,000 acres were burned, 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.  

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 from activists’ pushback on the spotted owl. 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.  

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


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