Late last month, we held a Prescribed Fire on Working Landscapes workshop near Colfax, culminating in a small broadcast burn on the Edwards Family Tree Farm. As we prepared to ignite the burn, our instructor emphasized that the dry winter and early spring had resulted in fire conditions that were more like early June than late March. Last night, after I finished working in the office, I decided to try to burn some brush at our home place near Auburn. The message on the Placer County Burn Information line indicated that burning was suspended through tomorrow due to elevated fire danger. In early April. I guess it's time to start preparing our ranches for another fire season.
Wildfire preparations can more complicated for commercial livestock operations than for typical homeowners. In addition to creating a fire-safe space around homes, we also need to protect livestock and ranch infrastructure. Many ranches have livestock in multiple locations, and many of these leased pastures are simply pastures; there is no landlord or caretaker on site. Often, the number of livestock at a particular location may be more than can be easily evacuated in case of wildfire. Finally, access during a fire may be difficult due to law enforcement road blocks and priority for fire equipment. Here are a few of things we do to get ready for fire season.
Assessing the Threat
What is at risk in our operation? Do we have livestock in multiple locations? What is access like? At a minimum, our wildfire preparation efforts address the following:
- Create defensible space around home(s), barns and other infrastructure.
- Are there any access issues at any location where you have livestock? Single lane roads can be especially problematic. Do you have alternative access points?
- If you rely on dry forage for fall grazing, are there steps you can take to protect this forage from fire?
- Are there potential animal health issues associated with smoke and other indirect wildfire impacts?
Developing and Implementing a Wildfire Plan
Our ranch wildfire plan has several components:
- Protecting buildings, infrastructure and information: We remove flammable vegetation from within 100 feet of houses and other buildings. This also includes other critical infrastructure like propane tanks, wells, equipment sheds, barns and corrals. We also make sure we have protected critical legal documents and insurance information. Check CalFire's suggestions for putting together an emergency supply kit (http://www.readyforwildfire.org/Emergency-Supply-Kit/).
- Protecting forage: Like many operations, we stock our rangeland pastures conservatively to ensure a supply of fall forage. In some areas, we try to create fuel breaks to protect this forage from wildfire through targeted grazing. Disking or grading around the perimeter of pastures, or at least adjacent to potential ignition sources, can also reduce the threat. The width of any fuel break depends on the fuel type, topography/slope, and potential flame lengths that a fire might generate.
- Protecting livestock: We try to plan ahead for how we might move livestock out of harm's way in the event of a wildfire. That said, we have too many animals to evacuate on short notice; leaving animals in pasture (or “sheltering in place”) might be our best option. Fortunately, we've never had to do this. If you need to leave animals in place, be sure they have enough feed and water for several days. Will the livestock have water if the power goes out? Be sure to take down temporary fences or other hazards that may injure livestock as the fire moves through the property. Prepare for any post-fire health problems (like respiratory infections or other injuries) as well.
- Water supply: Water is critical for protecting our properties and for keeping livestock healthy. Do you have adequate water supplies for wetting down your buildings and facilities, or for directly fighting fire? If you have to pump water, do you have a backup system in case you lose power? Can you provide stock water if the power goes out? You may want to consider investing in a backup generator and/or additional water storage.
- Escape routes: Ideally, we try to have at least two routes in and out of our ranch properties. In addition, we try to think about at least two alternatives for moving livestock to safety in the event of a fire - this means loading and unloading facilities, a plan for gathering livestock, and a clear understanding of the road system near your pastures. Narrow roads can be problematic for navigating with stock trailers, especially when fire equipment is also inbound.
- Backup: Obviously, many of us can't be on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to a fast-moving fire (especially when livestock are grazing on multiple properties). We work with friends, neighbors or colleagues to have a backup plan to evacuate or otherwise protect your livestock. Consider meeting with your neighbors to go over key livestock facilities, evacuation plans and access routes. Be sure to check in with these backup resources in the event of fire.
- Communication plans: I try to keep phone numbers for the other ranchers in our area on my phone, and I try to keep track of who runs the cows or sheep next door. During fire season, many ranchers text or call neighbors when they see smoke. Consider formalizing these calling trees.
- Situational awareness: During fire season, I constantly watch for smoke, especially when I hear fire equipment or aircraft. We carry a shovel or other fire tool and 5 gallons of water in our pickups and pay attention to where ranch visitors park – a catalytic converter on dry grass can be disastrous. I also check local news websites or alert services (like www.yubanet.com).
Writing Down our Plan
Even for ranching operations with few or no employees, writing down our plan can help others (spouses, neighbors, etc.) know what to do and who to contact in case of fire. Our written plan includes the locations where livestock are grazing (which suggests this plan needs to be updated as livestock are moved). Location information includes a physical address and/or map, along with the number and class of animals on site. We also include a description of potential evacuation routes (including locations of loading facilities). Are there safe zones (like dry lots or irrigated pastures) on the property or nearby where animals could be moved if evacuation isn't possible? Is there an onsite caretaker or neighbor we can call in case of emergency? Are there other ranchers who could help us? What are the numbers of livestock haulers who might be available? Click here for a template for completing your own plan!
I share a copy of this plan with other people in our operation – specifically, with my wife and kids, and my partner. This year, I'll plan on sharing this plan with our landlords, as well. Finally, we'll provide a copy (or at least a list of locations where we have livestock) to our local fire, animal control, and law enforcement agencies.
A Future Solution?
As with many other ranching counties in California, Placer, Nevada, and Yuba Counties have been working on formalizing an Ag Pass program designed to help ranchers gain safe access to livestock in emergency situations. Assembly Member Megan Dahle has introduced legislation (AB 1103) that would implement this program statewide. These programs would require ranchers to attend training on fire behavior and the incident command system, and would likely also require a list of properties where livestock may be grazing. If you'd like more information about the Ag Pass idea, contact me at email@example.com.
As I look back over previous posts to my Ranching in the Sierra Foothills blog, I see that I seem to write about wildfire preparation just about every spring. I guess that's the nature of living with fire - our ranch fire plans are something that we should revisit every year - better to have a plan that we don't use than to need a plan when fire strikes. Stay safe this summer!
Wednesday, October 28, 2020 – 6 p.m. (via Zoom)
The University of Cooperative Extension (UCCE) is organizing an informational meeting on forming a Rancher's Fire Safe Council in the Sierra Foothills and beyond on Wednesday, October 28, from 6-7:30 p.m. The meeting will include short presentations regarding the California Cattlemen's Association Wildfire Committee, community-based Fire Safe Councils, and Rangeland Fire Protection Associations. We'll be discussing ranching community priorities regarding fire prevention, fire response (including livestock evacuation), and coordination with emergency response agencies at the local, state and federal levels. Please note: this meeting is focused on the needs and issues of commercial-scale ranching operations.
To register (and receive a Zoom link for the meeting), go to: http://ucanr.edu/survey/survey.cfm?surveynumber=32171
For more information, please contact Dan Macon, UCCE Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor (Placer-Nevada-Sutter-Yuba) at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 889-7385./span>
In the meantime, how are you going to cope?
Having lived (and ranched) through California's 1000-year drought from 2012-2015, I often find myself recalling the autumn of 2013. Believe it or not, we had a germinating rain on September 3 - I measured 0.75" of rain here in Auburn. Just under three weeks later, we received another inch of rain. The combination was enough to get our grass started! But a fellow rancher - I can't remember who - told me never to trust a grass year that started before Halloween. October turned dry and November turned cold and dry - between October 1 and December 31, we measured just over two inches of rain. The grass that had looked so promising in late September was gone by New Year's Day 2014. My rancher friend was correct.
The Sierra Foothills typically experience a prolonged dry spell from late spring through early fall - part of living in a Mediterranean climate. Every autumn, I look forward to the first germinating rain - the storm that is the dividing line between brown grass and green grass on our annual rangelands. Weather forecasts from two weeks ago suggested that we'd get this storm last weekend; reality proved otherwise, and our weekend was cool but dry. And the most recent California drought map indicates that our normal dry spell has intensified into moderate-to-severe drought.
Looking back at 35 years of monitoring data from the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center (SFREC) in Browns Valley, I see a record of uncertainty and variability. The earliest germinating rain at SFREC was recorded on September 2, 2000. The latest occurred just two years later, on December 12, 2002. Over the last 35 years, the first germinating rain of the fall occurred around October 21. But in 29% of the last 35 years, a germinating rain hasn't arrived until after November 1.
Why does this matter? As most ranchers will know, we usually reach a point in mid-December when the days are too short and the temperatures (both air and soil) are too cool to support grass growth, regardless of soil moisture. I call this our winter dormant period - the timeframe where we have to get buy on the grass that grew from germination to dormancy (and last year's dry grass). If germination happens in mid-October, and we get follow-up rains, this means we have 45 days worth of growth at least. If germination happens a month later, we don't have much grass.
Because of this uncertainty and variability, most of us are conservative in our stocking rates - we keep the number of breeding animals we know we can sustain through a dry fall. Many of us use supplemental protein to be able to utilize the dry forage we saved from the previous spring. Others try to match our production cycle to the forage cycle, calving or lambing when we're likely to have adequate high quality forage.
As I think back on my experiences in 2013-2014, I think there is a difference between short-term drought and long-term drought. Our preparation strategies, like a conservative stocking rate and fitting our production calendar to the forage, help us deal with both. Response strategies, however, can be ramped up as the severity of the drought escalates. Buying supplemental feed, for example, might help bridge a dry fall; buying replacement feed to get through a dry two or three years is a recipe for bankruptcy. Similarly, deciding not to buy in stockers or feeder lambs in a dry fall is a short-term solution; selling breeding animals or replacement females is a more drastic step that might be necessary in a long-term drought.
One of the most important lessons I learned in the last drought is that we constantly need to be thinking about how much forage we have ahead of us, and talking about key decision dates. At the moment, we have enough dry grass to get through the end of January (provided we give the sheep supplemental protein). At that point, our ewes will be entering the last third of their gestation period - and their nutritional demands will start ramping up. We typically give the ewes their pre-lambing vaccines during the third week of January. If we're still dry at that stage, we'll have some difficult decisions to make. In the meantime, I'll keep doing my rain (and germination) dance! Don't worry - I won't post video!
For regular updates on forage and ranching weather conditions, check out my Instagram feed at @flyingmule!
Like many of you over the last several weeks (and indeed, over the last several years), I've read heartbreaking accounts of ranchers losing livestock in this latest round of devastating wildfires. I've talked to neighboring ranchers who helped friends evacuate livestock, and who moved their own animals to safe zones. And I've constantly watched the horizon for new smoke, and the sky for fire planes and helicopters. I've wondered what we can do as a ranching community to address our unique concerns and needs in the face of increasingly dangerous wildfires.
According to the California Fire Safe Council,
“Fire Safe Councils are grassroots, community-led organizations that mobilize residents to protect their homes, communities, and environments from catastrophic wildfire. A local Fire Safe Council is often sparked by a catalyst – perhaps a recent fire or a group of neighbors eager to spread a fire-safe message – then embraced by the community, which turns that initial interest into a committed group that finds ways to empower the residents to do their part to make the community safe.”
Most of these local Fire Safe Councils are formed by geographically related communities – counties, towns, or neighborhoods. But what about communities of interest? What about the ranching community? Our needs, when it comes to preventing and responding to wildfire, can be very different than a residential homeowner's needs.
Ranching in the Sierra foothills is unique. Many of us operate on multiple parcels, some leased, others owned. These ranches are dispersed throughout the community – they may be surrounded by residential communities or public lands. Some of us still take livestock to the high country, while others rely on irrigated pasture during the summer months. Many of us have livestock at multiple locations.
Because these ranches are grazed (or in fire terms, because the fine and ladder fuels are modified), ranches may provide areas where fire behavior changes – where firefighters can attack a fire directly. Ranches that include irrigated pasture may provide additional firebreak benefits. Some ranches have ponds or other water sources that maybe helpful to firefighting efforts.
Rancher needs during a wildfire may also differ from the surrounding communities. Unlike backyard livestock owners, commercial ranchers often have more livestock than can be evacuated by a single truck and trailer – making evacuation difficult even with enough warning. Ranchers with leased pasture may have difficulty accessing property and livestock during an emergency due to roadblocks. And ranchers typically have first-hand, on-the-ground knowledge – and oftentimes equipment – that may be helpful in the initial response to wildfire.
All of this brings me to an idea:
What if we created a Rancher's Fire Safe Council?
What if we formalized our efforts to inventory the equipment and expertise that could help protect ranch lands and the surrounding community? What if we formalized our relationships with CalFire, law enforcement, and other emergency services? What if we could train ourselves (and our neighbors) on things like safe evacuation and fire behavior? What if we formally became a resource for protecting our ranches and our communities?
I'd like to invite you to a meeting to explore this idea in more detail. And please feel free to invite other ranchers to participate. I envision this group being comprised of commercial producers – ranchers who have more livestock than could be evacuated in a single trailer, who are raising livestock as a business.
WHEN: Wednesday, October 28, 2020 – 6-7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Via Zoom – link will be provided once you register
Please RSVP at: https://ucanr.edu/survey/survey.cfm?surveynumber=32171
- What is a Fire Safe Council?
- Are there other ways to address the fire prevention, response, and recover needs of the ranching community?
- What could a Rancher's Fire Safe Council do? What are our top priorities?
- Who should be involved in this effort?
- Next steps
I look forward to hearing from you! What do YOU think a Rancher's Fire Safe Council could do? Leave a comment to this blog, or email me directly at email@example.com.
As for most of you, I imagine, my world seems upside down at the moment, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. As I write this, my youngest daughter is finishing her junior year of high school through online courses. My oldest daughter is completing her second-to-last semester at Montana State University through online courses. And I'm working from the desk in my kitchen. I think I've participated in more video conferences in the last seven days than I've been on in my entire professional life. Based on the advice of medical professionals, we're practicing social distancing, washing our hands, and avoiding large gatherings of people.
Despite COVID-19's dominance of our news cycle and our family conversations, normal, everyday ranching concerns continue. We're at the tail end of our lambing season, which means I'm checking the flock every morning and evening (and more frequently during stormy weather). And we're still worrying about drought.
Yesterday, I was invited to give a presentation during the California-Nevada Drought Early Warning System regular bimonthly webinar. The first two talks covered current conditions and future outlook - and even with the rain and snow we had in our part of the Sierra Nevada and Sacramento Valley last week, we remain in drought conditions. If you're interested in the details, here's a recording of the webinar talks (mine is the third talk in the webinar). The first two talks confirmed my observations. After last week's rain, I checked soil moisture on our winter rangeland - even with three inches of precipitation, the soil was only 50-75 percent saturated (which explains the lack of water in our seasonal creeks). We're starting to see some of our annual grasses head out, indicating the possibility of an earlier-than-normal decline in forage quality. While the snow in the mountains was welcome, our snow water content remains well below average for this time of year.
As I was preparing my talk, I started thinking about how my approach to this year's drought was different from how we managed through 2013-14 (one of the driest years in my memory). While every drought is unique (in terms of severity, timing, and scope), I think I've also learned from my experience. In 2013, we moved our sheep to Rio Vista, where I helped manage a 1900 ewe operation. Here's a quick comparison of the steps we took in the fall of 2013 and early winter of 2014, versus our strategies in 2019-20.
2013-2014 Drought (late germination, followed by extended dry period and warm January temperatures)
- We fed our entire year's supply of alfalfa during lambing (October-December) because there was virtually no grass on our annual rangelands.
- In late January, we sold approximately one-third of our ewes to reduce our forage demand once they started to lamb.
- In mid-February, we moved our sheep back to annual rangeland in the foothills near Auburn (to ensure that the larger commercial flock would have access to rangeland in Rio Vista.
- In late February, we ultrasounded our ewes to determine whether they were pregnant. We sold a handful of open ewes.
- We weaned our lambs four weeks earlier than normal (in late May) to reduce our stocking rate and save dry forage for fall.
2019-2020 Drought (late termination, followed by wet December, dry January, record dry/warm February)
- For the first time ever, we took our ewes to alfalfa stubble in the Sacramento Valley (near Nicolaus) from mid-November until mid-December. While we incurred some additional expense, this allowed us to rest our winter rangeland for an additional 30 days.
- Because we've kept detailed grazing records since the previous drought, we were able to put together detailed, 2-month grazing plans. We identified additional forage resources on our winter rangeland that allowed us to extend our forage supplies.
- We will cull any ewe without a lamb when we ship the flock back to spring/summer pasture in April. We'll cull additional ewes at weaning (for poor mothering, bad udders, missing teeth, etc.)
I'm curious as to how your drought strategies have changed! Are you doing anything differently this year? Is this the first drought you've experienced?