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.
Over the last three days, we've had a stark reminder about our vulnerability to wildfire and public safety power shutoffs here in the Sierra foothills. On Saturday morning, as I was getting ready to participate in the California Wool Growers Association virtual convention, I received word that the power was out in the community where our ewes are grazing. This meant we'd likely have to haul water to the sheep (rather than filling troughs from a pump-fed hose bib) - doable, but time consuming. Fortunately, power was restored quickly, and we were able to fill the troughs - a relief since Saturday was one of the hottest days of the summer so far!
Last night, I awoke to the sound of one of our border collies opening the screen door and trotting into the kitchen (where he could hide beneath the desk). Mo hates thunder, and I realized that thunder had chased him inside. I went outside to watch the lightning dance around the hills to our west and north. These storms were dry, and so we awoke this morning to news of a number of small (and at least one not-so-small) fires just to our north in Nevada County. I can smell smoke outside my office as I write this.
These events remind us that we're approaching peak fire season here in the northern foothills. The continuing heat wave (we're supposed to be over 100F for the fourth consecutive day) is drying the fuel to critical levels. As we head towards autumn, we'll likely see stronger and more erratic winds - and, according to the flyer I received from Pacific Gas & Electric last week, more public safety power shutoffs.
Last year's shutoffs were chaotic, to say the least. Here in north Auburn, we lost power three or four times (I think; so much has happened since last fall, my memory is a bit hazy). I do recall that the warning calls and texts from PG&E were frequent and rarely accurate. We had difficulty finding ice for our ice chests, and folks seemed to have forgotten how to go through intersections without working traffic lights. I grew up with lengthy power outages from winter weather, so the loss of electricity was more of an inconvenience for us - thankfully we had a small generator handy, so we could keep the meat in our freezers cold.
Heading into this fall, though, we should all be thinking about how we can manage through these power shutoffs and prepare for wildfire. Here's a start:
Public Safety Power Shutoff Preparation
- Can we get water to our livestock if the power goes off? How much water will our livestock need per day? If I can't pump water to them, do I have enough tank capacity and water access to haul water to them until power is restored?
- Do I have back-up power for our freezers and refrigerators? What is at risk in these appliances? We no longer sell meat at farmers markets; if we did, I'd be sure to have enough backup power generation on hand. What about vaccines and other pharmaceuticals? We keep our animal drugs in a refrigerator in our shop - can we keep them cold if we have no electricity?
- Do we have enough gasoline to run our generator for several days?
- Do we have enough ice for our ice chests to get us through a day or two without power? We've started filling empty milk cartons with water and freezing them for future use.
- Do all of our flashlights and battery-powered lanterns have good batteries?
- Can we charge our phones and computers in our vehicles? My laptop has an adapter, and we all have car chargers for our smart phones.
- Have we signed up for alerts from PG&E and other emergency services? As unorganized as the PG&E alert system was last year, it was helpful to feel connected and to be getting updates. And since these shutoffs coincide with periods of high fire danger, access to our phones is critical.
Since large-scale fires often coincide with loss of power, most of the preparations listed above apply here, too. But there are additional questions we think about when it comes to fire:
- Can we get to our sheep in the event of fire? Currently we have livestock on two leased properties at some distance from our home. In the event of a fire at these locations, we would contact law enforcement and animal control if we needed to gain access.
- Do we have contact information for landlords and neighboring landowners where our livestock our grazing, just in case we can't get access?
- Who would we call if we needed to haul our livestock out of the path of an oncoming fire? We can't get all of our sheep in one load, so we'd need to call for help.
- Alternatively, are there safe zones where we could place our livestock if we didn't have time to evacuate? Irrigated pastures or dry lots devoid of flammable vegetation may give us some emergency protection in a fast moving fire.
- Do we have a texting tree or a calling tree to check in with other ranchers in our community? I have found that county and CalFire emergency notification services typically don't provide timely information about small, local fires. But my ranching friends are always on top of things - often, the first word I get about a fire in our part of Placer County is a text from a fellow rancher.
- Are our buildings and other infrastructure protected? Since we have livestock in multiple locations, I think about this beyond our home place. Are there fire breaks protecting fences and forage? Have we removed brush around buildings and corrals?
- Do we have fire tools available to us? I keep a fire rake and a 5-gallon backpack pump in my truck during the summer - I've never had to use them, but I feel better having them with me.
You can sign up for PG&E alerts at at https://www.pge.com/mywildfirealerts (if you're a PG&E customer) or https://pge.com/pspszipcodealerts (if you're not a PG&E customer). You can also access PG&E's weather forecasting center at https://pge.com/weather.
Finally, I want to hear from you! What are you doing to prepare for fires and power outages? Share your ideas in the comments below, or on the UCCE Sustainable Foothill Ranching Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/FoothillSustainableRanching/.
When we were in the targeted grazing business, I always marveled that many landowners and land managers didn't start thinking about managing their fuel loads until the grasses and other fine fuels really started growing in April. To this day, I still get phone calls and emails in April and May inquiring whether I can provide sheep or goats to reduce someone else's fire danger. Even now, with more producers providing targeted grazing services throughout the state, there simply are not enough livestock in California to treat all of the dangerous fine fuels (what many of us used to call "fall feed"). Consequently, we need to think about where and how we graze strategically - where can we provide the greatest protection to neighborhoods, infrastructure, and even our own farms and ranches?
Every spring, I see a news report where CalFire suggests that we're facing another dangerous fire season. Either we've had lots of precipitation, which means lots of grass (a.k.a., fine fuel), or we've had a dry, warm spring (like this year), which means fire season may start earlier than normal. This week, we're coping with the first heat wave of the summer (even though it's not officially "summer" yet) - which always raises awareness of the fire threat even further. We've even seen the first grass fires in the Sacramento Valley. I know I've started paying more attention to the aircraft flying over our home place - all summer, I glance up to see if it's a fire plane (and if it is, I start looking for smoke on the horizon). Finally, these first hot days remind me that it's time to get serious about our ranch fire plan (click here for a fire planning for ranchers fact sheet).
Now I'm certainly no expert when it comes to fire behavior - that combination of fuels, topography, and weather that drives site-specific wildfire conditions. However, when I look at the areas where we graze our sheep in the summer months, I think this fire behavior triangle is a useful lens. I ask myself the following questions:
- Where are the fine fuels most likely to create a ladder for fire to get into brush or trees?
- Where are the likely ignition sources in this landscape? While I can't necessarily control the natural ignition sources (like lightning), are there other potential sources (like recreation areas, roadways, utility infrastructure)?
- Are there assets in the community or on the particular property that I want to protect from fire? This may include homes, outbuildings, wells, sensitive ecological areas, or other values.
- Are there areas where modifying the fine fuels could slow a fire, giving firefighters a chance to stop it? This relates, at least in part, to the topography of a particular location.
When it comes to this last point, I think it may be useful to think of grazing like we're creating what my forester friends call a shaded fuel break. My friend Allen Edwards, who owns timber land outside of Colfax, had the foresight to construct a shaded fuel break on his property on either side of an access road along the ridge between the American River canyon and Interstate 80. To create the shaded fuel break, Allen removed the ladder fuels under his mature trees (brush, small trees, and limbs on the larger trees). When the 2001 Ponderosa Fire came out of the canyon on a hot August day, his shaded fuel break allowed firefighters to safely make a stand and keep the fire from moving further east and north, into the town of Colfax. In the lower foothills, we may be able to use targeted grazing in similar manner. A combination of grazing and browsing livestock (cattle, sheep, and goats) can modify the fuel load such that fire behavior will change enough to give firefighters a chance. These "grazed" fuel breaks don't necessarily remove all of the flammable vegetation, but grazing impacts (including removal of the vegetation and trampling, which can reduce oxygen circulation within the dry forage) can slow a fire's advance. These types of fuel modifications should be coupled with roads or other access points that allow firefighter access in the event of a fire.
If you're considering using a targeted grazing contractor, click here for a fact sheet. I also have a list of regional targeted grazing contractors available on my website. If you're a rancher who is thinking about adding targeted grazing as an enterprise, here's a short power point on the Principles of Targeted Grazing. If you still have questions, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org./span>/span>
Given California's ongoing shelter at home order, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, most of the ranchers I know are no longer gathering at a local coffee shop to catch up on how the neighbor's calf crop looks! Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, however, I held my first-ever Virtual Coffee Hour for ranchers this morning! We had a great discussion about drought, wildfire preparation, the impacts of COVID-19, and our individual coffee preferences.
Our conversation confirmed that this has been an exceptionally unusual year in terms of forage growth. Some noted that there seemed to be more foxtail and filaree than usual; others said the forage growth was patchy. Everyone felt like the forage on our annual grasslands would mature earlier than usual - possibly signaling an early onset of fire season.
Most importantly, we learned that 60 percent of those on the call prefer black coffee, while 30 percent add cream and sugar. And an astounding 10 percent didn't drink coffee at all!
Our next Ranchers Virtual Coffee Hour will be on Tuesday, May 5 at 6:30 a.m. - register here to get a link:
For many of us in Northern California, the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons are still very fresh in our minds. The late-season fires in Sonoma County in 2017, and the Camp Fire in Butte County in 2018, were among the most destructive deadliest fires in California's history. With above average precipitation - and above average forage growth - ranchers in the Sierra foothills and Sacramento Valley should start working now to prepare for what promises to be another very challenging fire season.
- Near normal temperatures and precipitation through August.
- Above normal snow pack gradually melting through July.
- Weak El Niño continuing through the summer.
- Heavy fine fuel crop [grass!], completely cured in June. Above normal brush growth.
- Below normal amount of summer lightning due to prevailing SW-W flow.
- Normal Significant Fire Potential in May. Above Normal at lower elevations from Sacramento Valley June-August, spreading north and including middle elevations beginning in August. Significant Fire Potential remaining quiet at high elevations.
While many of us have remarked that forage growth on our foothill rangelands seemed late this year, monitoring at the UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center suggests that we're now above normal - the April 1 forage numbers are about 120 percent of the long term average. This data - as well as the NCGCC predictions above - was generated before the significant rainfall we've received over the last week. While the cooler temperatures and moisture will tamp down fire danger this month, we'll probably see increased fine fuel and brush growth as a result of these May storm systems. In other words, our fire danger will ramp up once the weather turns hot and dry.
At the risk of recycling a blog post from last fire season, here are some actions all of us can take in the coming weeks to prepare for increasing wildfire risk later in the summer:
Developing a Plan
What is at risk in your operation? Do you have livestock in multiple locations? Will you be able to access your home place or rented pastures in the event of a fire? Do you rely on dry forage in the fall before new grass germinates? A ranch wildfire plan should have several main components:
- Protecting Buildings, Infrastructure and Information: All of us should make our home places fire safe! Remove flammable vegetation within 100 feet of homes and other buildings. Don't forget other critical infrastructure like propane tanks, wells, equipment sheds and barns. Also be sure you have protected critical legal documents and insurance information. You should also check CalFire's suggestions for putting together an emergency supply kit (http://www.readyforwildfire.org/Emergency-Supply-Kit/).
- Protecting Forage: Many of us stock our operations conservatively to ensure that we have fall forage for our livestock. You might consider creating fuel breaks to protect this forage. Disking or grading around the perimeter of pastures, or at least adjacent to potential ignition sources, can protect this forage. Another alternative would be to use targeted grazing adjacent to roads or pasture boundaries - this can reduce the fuel load and slow a fire down. The width of any fuel break depends on the fuel type, topography/slope, and potential flame lengths that a fire might generate.
- Protecting Livestock: I try to think ahead of how I might move animals out of harm's way in the event of a fire. Given enough warning, I would either haul livestock away from a fire or herd them to a safe location. Many of us, however, have too many animals to evacuate on short notice. Leaving animals in pasture (or "sheltering in place") might be the only option in many cases. In our operation, I've identified areas like irrigated pastures or areas with little or no vegetation where we could put livestock until a fire passes. If you need to leave animals in place, be sure they have enough feed and water for several days. Will the animals have water if the power goes out? Be sure to take down temporary fences or other hazards that may injure animals as the fire moves through your property.
- 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 wish to consider investing in a backup generator and/or additional water storage. Remember, PG&E will likely shut down the power grid during periods of severe fire risk.
- Escape Routes: Ideally, we should all have at least two routes in and out of our ranch properties. We try to think about at least two alternatives for moving our livestock to safety in the event of a fire - and this means loading and unloading facilities, a plan for gathering livestock, and a clear understanding of the road system near our pastures. Narrow roads can be problematic for navigating with stock trailers, especially when fire equipment is also inbound.
- Backup: Obviously, we can't all be on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to a fast-moving fire. Consider working 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: Do you have phone numbers for the other ranchers in your area? Do you know who runs the cows or sheep next door? Most of us probably do! During fire season, many of us text or call our neighbors when we see smoke. Perhaps it's time to formalize these calling trees. Contact me at email@example.com if you'd like help setting up a calling tree for your area. Also, consider communicating with local law enforcement and animal control officials before an emergency occurs - letting these folks know where you have animals may be helpful in accessing your livestock during a fire.
- Situational Awareness: If you're like me, your ear can tell the difference between a fire plane and a regular aircraft. Whenever I'm outside during fire season, I scan the horizon for smoke - especially when I hear fire planes overhead. I carry fire tools and a 5-gallon backpack pump in my truck during fire season, as well, and I'm constantly aware of my surroundings when I'm working in dry grass or brushland.
Last summer, I put together a fillable form to help livestock producers write down a simple wildfire plan. In our sheep operation, I printed a copy of this plan for everyone associated with our ranch (family members, landlords, co-owners). I also shared our plan with our local animal control and law enforcement. The plan stayed in my truck until fire season ended. Thankfully, we didn't need to implement our plan - but the planning process itself instigated useful conversations within our business and with our neighbors. Click on the links below for more information:
Finally, I want to hear from you! What steps are you taking to prepare for wildfire and other emergencies in your ranching operation! We can all learn from one another - please share your plans in the comment section!