Feb 08, 2018
When Wildfire Hits the Ranch: Lessons Learned from the Thomas Fire
Authors: Matthew Shapero, University of California Cooperative Extension
Just as quickly as the Thomas Fire swept through parts of our community, the questions started flooding my office: Should we prune our burned avocado trees? Can I graze my cattle on burned pastures, and if not, how can I increase my forage production for next season? How will the next rain and the sediments it transports impact our water quality?
As aggregators of the best-available science, the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) was there to answer, or at least address as best we could, those first, often frantic questions.* In the tense period that followed the devastating Thomas Fire, there was a surprising amount of confusion and misinformation. The advisors in our office, most of whom have well-established relationships with members of the community, were there to provide steady, sound advice.
My situation was unique in that I’d been on the job for only three months when the Thomas Fire broke out. Being so new, my knowledge of Ventura County and my roots in the community were both limited. Still, I was compelled with a desire to do something, and quickly.
So, the first thing I did was organize an emergency hay program through Ventura County Animal Services (our county’s animal control program). Immediately after the fire, ranchers faced challenging realities. With their winter feed burned up, would they ship animals out to other, unburned pastures? Or, should they sell animals and de-stock? Or, should they feed their stock with hay until next spring? Our emergency hay program provided livestock owners with five days’ worth of hay, buying them a little more time to consider their options. While five days is only a drop in the bucket (many of these ranchers were out by as much as 120 days’ worth of feed), they greatly appreciated this relief. The California Office of Emergency Services reported that this program was a first for our state. Given how finite, yet critical the support was, I encourage others to consider working with their local government to outline and plan a similar effort.
We also needed to support the agriculture community, given the destruction that the Thomas Fire caused particularly to orchards, ranches and bee yards. Our office hosted one-on-one appointments so that producers could quickly meet with the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS). These two federal agencies provide insurance and cost-share support to agriculturalists after wildfires, and, given that this support can move rather slowly, it was important that producers file their assistance applications as soon as possible. In addition to streamlining this otherwise bureaucratic hurdle, these appointments served as an important healing opportunity, as they offered a chance for agriculturalists to be together and to be heard.
Long term, our office is planning a series of recovery workshops. In addition to one for agriculturalists, three workshops will draw on the broad expertise in our office and will target 1- homeowners and home gardeners; 2- wildland managers; and 3- land-use planners and policymakers. These workshops will offer both recovery and planning resources.
In addition to launching these recovery programs, I also witnessed several patterns and lessons learned regarding how ranchers, in particular, fit into the before, during and after portions of fire adaptation.
1. Before-the-Fire Lessons Learned
- Sign up for NAP.
If they aren’t already enrolled, ranchers and farmers should sign up each year for the Noninsured Crop Assistance Program (NAP) through FSA. It is worth the relatively small cost. Most producers are likely familiar with NAP, as the program provides payments to producers who are in regions that are declared to be in a drought. NAP is also a rancher’s primary source of insurance regarding wildfire. Coming off a five-year drought, most impacted producers in our region were already signed up for NAP. However, some were not, and FSA is unable to backdate coverage.
- Maintain defensible space.
The Thomas Fire was largely a wind-driven fire. During 80 mph winds, embers the size of your fist were blown a quarter mile, over ridgetops, and ignited spot fires. Infrastructure (such as hay barns, machine shops, corrals, water troughs, etc.) that had substantial defensible space surrounding them were largely spared. In California, CAL FIRE requires that homes have 100 feet of defensible space. I would encourage ranchers to double that, at least.
- Build smart and have water on hand.
Barns and outbuildings with metal roofs fared the best in the Thomas Fire. Another critical consideration was water. Ranchers need a reliable water source (that does not depend upon electricity). They should consider installing 5,000-gallon tanks on hillslopes, with enough elevational drop to maintain good water pressure. One rancher sprayed an ignited hay pile for six hours (and consequently saved his nearby home). He lost power during that time, so had he not installed tanks on the ridgetop 300 feet above the house, the outcome would have likely been quite different.
2. During-the-Fire Lessons Learned
Every ranch is different, and each will have different priorities during a wildfire. And every fire is different. Some will provide little warning, and in other instances, you may have days to prepare for its arrival. In ideal circumstances, ranchers would drive their animals into a pasture with little flammable fuels and leave all of the gates open. The first 2.5 hours of the Thomas Fire, it burned 500 acres. During the second 2.5 hours, it burned 20,000 acres.
Consequently, most ranches had essentially no warning. What’s more, most of these ranches were so remote that the fire department never arrived, and ranchers defended their properties alone. For those living on their ranch, the main house was typically their first priority. Other priorities, of course, included employees’ safety, the other structures (hay barn, horse barn, shop, office, employee housing, etc.), equipment (ATVs, backhoe, etc.), the horses and the livestock. To my knowledge, the horses that were let out into a dirt corral or round pen were unharmed during the fire. Generally, livestock also did well when left to their own devices. The Thomas Fire was extremely patchy, and animals were often able to weave their way around flames as the fire approached and passed by them. For example, some livestock owners let their horses and other stock off the ranch as the fire approached and collected them after the fire had passed. One rancher in Ventura gathered his cattle on horseback as the fire approached, kept them bunched together, and moved them around the flames. Ranchers needed to immediately provide water for their animals, check for burns or respiratory issues, and provide necessary treatment.
3. After-the-Fire Ranching Lessons Learned
Given southern California’s Mediterranean climate, our rangelands green up in the fall with the first rains. They then grow slowly throughout the winter and explode come springtime. By June, however, they are brown and dry. This is when most of the state’s wildfires occur: in the summer, fall, and — increasingly — in the early winter, as with the Thomas Fire. Ranchers anticipate this annual rainfall and grass pattern and save spring grass to support their animals the following fall and winter. Wildfires, therefore, present several layers of threat to ranchers. In addition to the risk of losing human life, livestock and structures, wildfire puts their winter feedstock at risk. Understandably, wildfire therefore dramatically impacts ranchers’ bottom lines and cash flow. FSA payments from NAP and their Livestock Indemnity Program (for killed livestock) can sometimes take months to arrive. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Small Business Administration provide low-interest loans to private business owners, as does FSA to agriculturalists, within a federal disaster perimeter. NRCS provides critical cost-share support for rebuilding. But ranchers have to front these costs, as getting money into their pockets through these programs typically take weeks, at best.
I will say, however, that ranchers are an incredibly resilient bunch, familiar with disaster and adversity. Before the Thomas Fire, most ranchers who run livestock in Ventura County had been through at least one fire, if not more. Ranching is an endlessly challenging business, and most ranchers know how to adapt their operation to survive a crisis, largely because it won’t be their first one.
Research Initiatives in 2018
Since the Thomas Fire, I have initiated two fire-related research projects, both of which were inspired by inquiries from producers. In the first, I am looking at the Thomas Fire’s effects on the rangeland seed bank. I collected approximately 150 soil core samples from five ranches, with varying levels of burn severities. While caring for them in a greenhouse, I will monitor their germination date and rate, as well as species composition. My goal is to understand what, if any, impact the fire had on the seed bank. This will help ranchers decide whether they should consider seeding to boost production.
The second project is looking at the impact that grazing may have on rangeland recovery after a wildfire. I’ve installed 70 one-square-meter exclosures, to prevent grazing, and plan to monitor production and species composition within and outside of the exclosures. I am hoping these research projects can add to the important and growing body of post-wildfire literature.
The Role of State and Federal Policy
We need stronger policies to help ranchers better cope with catastrophic wildfire. In particular, at the county or state level, I think an emergency hay program should be codified into law. And at the federal level, I believe FSA should work to provide ranchers with insurance payments in a timelier manner. I am not advocating for handouts, as ranchers would be one of the groups most reticent to accept one. Rather, we need to recognize the benefit of having well-managed ranches in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). If it were not for the ranchers in Ventura County, who have been responsibly grazing grasslands and implementing prescribed burns, the loss of life and property resulting from the Thomas Fire would have been substantially worse. Countless Ventura homes abut what looks like “wildlands,” but what are actually ranches. Some of those homes were lost given the intensity and speed of the fire, but many others remain standing, largely because of the work that ranchers and livestock do. Accordingly, programs that enable ranchers to keep stewarding the land are more than appropriate.
*UCCE’s Sustainable and Fire-Safe Landscapes guidebook offers additional, southern-California specific wildfire resources (PDF, 4.35 MB).
Matthew Shapero is originally from California. After attending Columbia University and then farming on the East Coast, Matthew returned to California. In Nevada County, he began working with livestock. Eventually, he ran a ranch that sold pork, chicken and lamb, and was the foreman for a direct-to-consumer, grass-fed beef operation. His years on the ranch provided him with firsthand knowledge of stockmanship, rangeland ecology, animal health, business management, and the need to balance livestock and natural resource stewardship. In 2016, he completed a Master of Science in Range Management at the University of California, Berkeley, which provided him with a foundation in the ecological, social and political dimensions of natural resource management.
Since September 2017, Matthew has worked as UCCE’s Ventura and Santa Barbara counties’ livestock and range advisor. UCCE conducts fire-related research across California and relays that research to land managers and communities. UCCE is part of the larger Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR). ANR supports professors and specialists at California’s three land-grant campuses who examine fire across the state’s diverse landscapes. Supported research includes fire’s role in promoting native biodiversity, improving available forage for livestock grazing, increasing the resilience of coniferous forests, and maintaining habitat for wildlife. To learn more about Matthew’s work, visit his program’s webpage.