- Author: Dan Macon
The Detwiler Fire in Mariposa County (which has burned over 45,000 acres as of this post) reminds us that California's annual rangelands are especially vulnerable to wildfire. After record-setting rainfall in the just-concluded precipitation year, we have an unusual amount of fine fuels (dry grass and forbs). And after our just-concluded 500-year drought, we're still coping with significant tree mortality problems, especially on the west slope of the southern and central Sierra Nevada. (As a side note, I drove through the region currently impacted by the Detwiler Fire last fall - the number of dead Ponderosa pines was astounding). For me, at least, the threat of wildfire is a top-of-mind issue every year until the fall rains begin. I'm sure that those of you who also graze livestock on annual rangelands during the dry season feel the same way!
For me, there are three areas where I focus my attention when it comes to the threat of wildfire. The first is situational awareness. Obviously, when I'm checking sheep or building fence, I keep an eye on my surroundings - a puff of smoke commands my attention immediately. I'm cognizant of wind and humidity, as well. A fire plane makes a distinctive sound - a low flying fire plane suggests that there's a fire close by. Even when I'm sitting in my office (which is about 8 miles from our annual rangeland pastures), I listen for the sound of firefighting aircraft - the rest of the staff in Auburn is now used to seeing me run outside to look for smoke when we hear planes go over this time of year!
The second is preparation. As we enter fire season, we talk about where the sheep will be and where we might be able to move them if a fire threatens. While hauling the sheep out of harms way is our preferred option, we also discuss potential safe areas, including nearby irrigated pastures, green belts or areas cleared of vegetation. I also carry a McLeod fire tool and a 5-gallon backpack pump in my truck - it's important to be prepared.
The third area of focus is response. Fortunately, in the 15 years we've raised livestock commercially, we've never had to respond to a fire directly threatening our animals. We have lost fences on leased properties to fire, but we've never been forced to evacuate (for which I'm very grateful). As fast as the Detwiler Fire is moving, I suspect we wouldn't have much time to respond. Our option of last resort would be to let the fences down and hope that the ewes and the guard dogs get somewhere safe.