- (Public Value) UCANR: Protecting California's natural resources
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!
Lessons from our first Prescribed Fire on Working Landscapes Workshop
As I wrote in a blog post in February (Working with Fire), at one time, fire and fire agencies were part of the ranching culture of the foothill communities where I grew up. At some point, though, we lost the cultural affinity for – and know-how about – using fire as a tool for improving rangeland conditions and preventing larger, catastrophic wildfires. Fire became the domain of professionals – we simply couldn't trust "civilians" with such a potentially dangerous tool. When I graduated from college and started my career in the early 1990s, very few ranchers were using fire in the foothills.
Last week, we held a Prescribed Fire on Working Landscapes workshop at Edwards Family Tree Farm in Colfax. Nearly 30 ranchers, forest landowners, agency staff, and NGO staff joined us for two days of learning about – and actually using – fire to manage fuel loading. During our introductory webinar the evening before the first field day, my colleague Jeff Stackhouse, from Humboldt County, encouraged us to embrace "cowboy burning." The next morning, our host landowner Allen Edwards told me, “Dan, try to shepherd that fire down to the next check line.” Jeff and Allen made me realize that using prescribed fire, in many ways, is very similar to low-stress livestock handling. This might seem like a stretch, but let me explain!
- Communication is critical! Before we struck the first match, our workshop leader (Chris Paulus, a retired CalFire battalion chief and prescribed fire practitioner) led us in a pre-burn briefing. We discussed our burn plan, our safety measures, and what role each of us would play during the burn. We continued communicating during the burn, and Chris ended the workshop with a post-burn debriefing. Similarly, when we're moving sheep at the ranch – or working cattle at someone's ranch, we try to talk through our plan (even if it's simple) before we get started. Outlining expectations – and what to do when plans change – is vitally important! And we also talk when we're done - identifying the things that worked (and more importantly, the things that didn't) make us better prepared the next time.
- Don't force it – observe behavior and respond as appropriate. My predecessor Roger Ingram, who had a chance to work with legendary stockman Bud Williams, says this about our attitude when working stock:
Old Attitude: “I'm going to MAKE that animal do what I want.”
New Attitude: “I'm going to LET that animal do what I want.”
This shift in attitude requires careful observation of livestock behavior – if we pay attention, the animals will tell us when they're comfortable – and when they're stressed!
Chris taught us to pay attention to what the fire was telling us. A subtle shift in the wind, or a change in fuel type or dryness, changed fire behavior. Chris and Allen prepared the burn unit to help account for these variations – pre-established check lines and the strategic application of just a little water, for example, helped us LET the fire consume the fuels we wanted to impact while protecting the trees we wanted to save.
- Movement is good! When I first started riding horses or training sheep dogs, my natural tendency when things started moving too fast was to shut down all movement. A standing horse couldn't buck me off; a dog in a lie down wouldn't chase the sheep. As I gained more experience, though, I realized that we all made progress (me, dogs, and horses alike) when we were moving. I could begin to shape behaviors and improve communication by working through those times when we were all responding to one another.
My entire previous experience with prescribed fire was with pile burning – where movement of fire is undesirable! Last week, I learned about broadcast burning – about how to keep fire moving across the landscape safely. Chris and Allen showed us how to use simple techniques, like moving fire with a pitchfork and burning pine needles. By burning down-slope and into the wind (a backing fire), we were able to keep fire safely moving through the acre-plus demonstration site.
- Never stop learning! As I've gained more experience in handling livestock (and working my border collies), I've realized how much I don't know. Stockmanship, I think, requires a lifetime of observing and learning. Getting my first hands-on experience last week with broadcast burning was similar; I am realizing how much more there is to know about fuel types, burn conditions, terrain and topography, timing, etc. – we barely scratched the surface. Like stockmanship, prescribed fire requires both an intellectual understanding of the tool AND hands-on experience in a variety of settings.
Most importantly, last week's burn seemed simple, thanks to Chris and Allen. Most of us who were on site wore cotton or wool work clothes, sturdy boots, and work gloves. We had a variety of hand and power tools (fire rakes, McLeod hoes, pitchforks, backpack pumps, chainsaws, and leaf blowers), plus a pick-up bed water tank and trash pump for extra water. Chris brought a unique combination of professional knowledge and landowner practicality to the burn. While Chris is definitely an advocate for “good” fire, he's also sympathetic to the concerns and questions that landowners have about returning fire to the tool box. I'm looking forward to learning more!
I've known Doug Joses and his family for more than a quarter century. The unofficial mayor of Mountain Ranch (in Calaveras County) Doug has spent his entire life ranching in the Sierra foothills – raising cattle, sheep, and Angora goats. Several years ago, Doug related his experience during the Butte Fire (which devastated portions of Amador and Calaveras Counties in 2015). He also talked about his experience using fire to improve rangeland productivity in the 1970s and 1980s – he and his neighbors used fire regularly to control brush and improve forage quality for livestock and wildlife. I wasn't old enough to realize it, but fire was part of the ranching culture of the foothill communities where I grew up.
At some point, though, we lost the cultural affinity for – and know-how about – using fire as a tool for preventing larger, catastrophic wildfires (and for improving rangeland conditions). Fire became the domain of professionals – we simply couldn't trust ranchers – or our communities, really – with such a potentially dangerous tool. When I graduated from college and started my career in the early 1990s, very few ranchers were using fire in the foothills.
Perhaps landowners need to “take back” the work of using fire. Last month, I had the opportunity to observe (I would like to say “help,” but I really didn't do very much) a small broadcast burn in a patch of nonindustrial timber land near Colfax. The 2-acre site was part of a larger, multi-landowner shaded fuelbreak that included portions of Allen Edward's property. This particular patch had been masticated to knock down the brush that had regrown after the 2001 Ponderosa Fire (which Allen's previous fuel reduction work had helped to stop).
Of the various methods for reducing fuel loads, only fire and grazing actually remove fuel – mastication, mowing, herbicide treatments, etc. modify the fuel profile, but the fuel itself remains in place. The wood chips and brush scraps leftover from the mastication on this site were still flammable.
The key takeaway for me from the burn at Allen's was that fire – like grazing – can be an iterative process. A single burn – like a single graze period – won't necessarily convert a fire-prone site to a fire-safe site. Last week's burn consumed fuel on the surface, but not the deeper material that had been moistened by previous rainfall. Allen also emphasizes that two-thirds to three-quarters of the cost of the burns he's conducted so far were incurred “before we ever struck a match,” adding, “without the mastication, hand clearing, and pruning, a fire would destroy most of my trees.”
Most importantly, last month's burn seemed simple. All of us who were on site wore cotton or wool work clothes, sturdy boots, and work gloves. We had a variety of hand and power tools (fire rakes, McLeod hoes, pitch forks, backpack pumps, chainsaws, and leaf blowers), plus a pick-up bed water tank and trash pump for extra water. Chris Paulus, a retired CalFire battalion chief who is leading this effort in Colfax, brought a unique combination of professional knowledge and landowner practicality to the burn. While Chris is definitely an advocate for “good” fire, he's also sympathetic to the concerns and questions that landowners have about returning fire to the tool box.
As I've talked with Allen and Chris, a new idea is forming. Like any new “tool,” landowners and managers need time to get comfortable with actually using fire on the landscape. We've used our 2-day grazing academies (started by my predecessor, Roger Ingram) as a way to help ranchers get comfortable with managed grazing systems. What about a prescribed fire academy, where landowners can get real-world experience using fire to reduce wildfire danger, improve forage production, and enhance wildlife habitat. Stay tuned!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com./span>/span>