By Kevin HectemanThe Dixie Fire, now the second-largest wildfire in California's recorded history, has led to evacuations of livestock and an urgent need to care for those animals left behind.
"There's about 5,000 head of cattle in Indian Valley that are landlocked behind mandatory evacuation and road closures," said Tracy Schohr, a University of California Cooperative Extension livestock and natural resources advisor. While there was no count of actual livestock losses, she said thousands of acres of rangeland on private property and grazing allotments had been lost along with fencing and other infrastructure.
Schohr, who works in Butte, Plumas and Sierra counties, said the Ag Pass program has been critical to helping ranchers tend to their herds despite the fire. The program issues passes, with the aid of the county sheriff and agricultural commissioner's office, to farmers and ranchers so they can travel behind the lines to check on their livestock and property.
"The concept of that is really working as it was intended to," Schohr said. "We've had ranchers be able to go in and check on cattle that are behind evacuation zones."
Some ranchers rely on well water to slake their animals' thirst, and getting generators into the area to ensure reliable water supplies has been vital, she added.
Some cattle in the Chester area have been returned to their home ranches, Schohr said. In addition, she's helped one rancher evacuate cattle from the area and assisted others whose cattle had been sold and were under contract to ship within specific time frames.
"Most of the cattle in this area are migratory cattle," Schohr said. "They'll spend their winters in the valley and foothills, and then they'll spend their summers at the higher elevation."
Fire is not the only threat facing these ranchers and their livestock, Schohr said.
"We're not only facing a fire, but in that valley they had significant forage loss due to grasshoppers and the drought," she said. "Some of those ranchers are needing to shift cattle because they are losing forage up there."
Disaster programs through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency can help livestock producers facing wildfire losses. For more information, go to www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/disaster-assistance-program/index or contact the local Farm Service Agency office.
"The grazing season in some of these areas was shortened by drought, and now it's been significantly shortened by fire as well," Schohr said.
The Butte County Farm Bureau has set up a Dixie and Fly Fire Agricultural Assistance Fund to help feed and maintain livestock affected by these fires, including in agricultural communities of Plumas and Sierra counties. Animals large and small have been evacuated to the Plumas-Sierra County Fairgrounds in Quincy and at private locations in the area.
Donations will go toward feed, supplies and health care for animals, and will be distributed through the Butte Agricultural Foundation with the help of the Plumas-Sierra Farm Bureau and the Plumas-Sierra Cattlemen's Association. Any funds left over will go to repairs, replacement or upgrading of livestock facilities for future emergencies. For more information, call 530-533-1473 or email email@example.com.
Meanwhile, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week visited the scene of last year's August Complex fire along with Gov. Gavin Newsom and other officials to discuss the need to augment firefighting resources.
"Over the generations, over the decades, we have tried to do this job on the cheap," Vilsack said. "We tried to get by—a little bit here, a little bit there."
Vilsack said more forest management and fire-suppression work is needed.
"The reality is that this has caught up with us, which is why we have an extraordinary number of catastrophic fires," he said. "We have to significantly beef up our capacity. We have to have more boots on the ground, and I pledge to you and commit to you, that will happen."
Vilsack discussed a 20-year stewardship agreement between state and federal agencies that will see 1 million acres treated, and pledged that the fire-safety work would be done where there is the highest risk to life and property.
"We need to make sure that when we have catastrophic fires, we're in a position to begin the restoration and reforestation work that is so vital and so important to protect against further calamity," Vilsack said.
(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)