Forest fires force ranchers to make quick decisions

Aug 23, 2013

The raging wildfires scorching tens of thousands of acres throughout Idaho also have destroyed significant numbers of livestock and incinerated range land that ranchers were planning to use to feed their grazing cattle and sheep.

At least 14 large fires have been burning simultaneously in the Gem State, including five in the Sawtooth National Forest of central Idaho, where the monstrous Bear Creek Fire threatened more than a thousand homes and forced hundreds to evacuate in the Sun Valley-Hailey-Ketchum area.

As of Wednesday, Aug. 21, the Bear Creek Fire—which has cost about $12 million to battle—had consumed 106,320 acres and was 30 percent contained, according to the Idaho Department of Homeland Security. About 1,750 firefighters were assigned to it. The Elk Complex Fire in the Boise National Forest had devoured 131,045 acres and was 85 percent contained.

Stan Boyd, executive director of the Idaho Wool Growers Association, said the state’s ravaging wildfires will substantially displace livestock grazing at a crucial time. He said he has heard of cattle dying in the flames, but not a specific loss of sheep.

“It’s been a really mean summer,” Boyd told Western Livestock Journal. “It’s been a tough year. These folks have to find pasture this fall. Their summer allotments are burned up. … They’re all worried about next year. They’re worried about the future.”

Boyd said he hopes the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management will show a willingness to help ranchers and work with Idaho’s congressional delegation and Gov. Butch Otter to secure temporary grazing allotments.

Jeff Arrizabalaga and his cousin Jake Ireland lost virtually everything to the lightning-sparked fires in the Mountain Home region. “It burned everything we had, all our forest permits,” said Arrizabalaga, who has run about 200 head near Wilson Flat and House Mountain. He has confirmed that 80 to 90 cattle survived.

Losing one cow or calf is “like throwing a thousand dollar bill away,” Arrizabalaga said, noting when cows’ hooves are badly burned, they slip off like shoes. “Some were not burned too bad, but we’ve had to shoot some. … It seems like every day we ride we find one or two dead ones.”

It was difficult to herd the cattle when they were stampeding from two fires, the third-generation rancher said. They could not outrun the flames on flat land and got trapped when they ran into steep draws. “We couldn’t be two places at the same time.” Many of his horses were worn out trying to control the cows.

This summer’s fires were even worse than the destructive Foothills Fire of 1992.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” Arrizalabaga said, adding that his neighbors got burned out, too. “I don’t know what we’re going to do yet,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of riding ahead of us.”

Darcy Helmick’s family runs cattle near the Little Camas Reservoir. A J.R. Simplot Co. employee, she said the wildfires have directly impacted livestock operations in central and southern Idaho.

Helmick said there were cattle killed by the fires and cattle that had to be killed because of their injuries. For the cows that have survived, there is no range feed left for them next year, she said, noting ranchers are in the process of gathering and sorting their herds.

“It’s a significant impact. It hurts all around,” she said, adding feed was in short supply prior to the fires because of a prolonged drought. “A lot of range fires happen on winter ground. The latest fires occurred in summer pastures.”

Livestock operators did the best they could to save their animals, but the fires were so erratic, that proved difficult. “These cowboys were out night and day trying to get the cows out of the way of the fire.”

Neil Helmick, Darcy’s father, said his cattle were spared, but neighbors suffered terrible livestock losses due to the fires. The fire got so hot in places that it melted aluminum culverts.

His Davison family members own Treasure Valley Livestock. Helmick called the ongoing drought and wildfires “a double whammy.” He said, “Everybody’s scratching, trying to survive.”

Helmick used two dozers and discs to protect his property near Mayfield between Boise and Mountain Home from the flames of the Elk Fire Complex and the Pony Fire Complex. All in all, he runs about 500 head of cattle on his various properties.

“The fire never really bothered us,” Helmick said, noting many are taking inventory of their dead animals and salvaging the ones they can. Many of the cows were starting to wean.

“A lot of the neighbors got hit pretty hard. They lost a majority of their summer pastures. Everybody’s trying to make plans. … There’s a lot of guys who lost close to 100 percent of their summer country.

… We feel real fortunate so far, but that could change overnight.”

Helmick said the Forest Service and BLM need to revisit their management of public lands and allow more grazing and logging to reduce fuel loads that ignite and burst into wildfires. “Something needs to change.”

Steve Damele estimates he lost 12,000 to 15,000 grazing acres to the fires near Mayfield. He has confirmed the death loss of 13 heifers and one bull. He runs between 600 and 700 mother cows. His cows that got burned were replacement heifers.

“It was really chaotic during the whole time. You try to make the best decisions as quick as you can,” Damele said. Land that appeared safe one moment would explode into flames within an hour, he said. “We pushed cattle through flames. We got 44 head out.”

Damele urged that poorly managed federal lands be returned to states and counties to reduce fuel buildups and provide revenues for schools. “I will guarantee there will be another fire here the next six to 10 years just like this fire,” he said, noting the intervals between fires has gone from 40 to 20 to 10 years.

“If this thing blows again, we’re going to lose brush and it will be a monoculture grass lands. This is the worst I’ve seen it,” Damele said.

According to the National Fire Information Center and the National Interagency Fire Center, 31,683 fires had burned 3.3 million acres this season nationwide, compared to a 10-year, year-to-date average of 52,700 fires and 5.4 million acres.

The Idaho State Department of Agriculture has set up a web site link to provide information regarding allotment status, public lands regulations, emergency haying and grazing of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land, damage assessment and availability of Farm Service Agency loans and qualification requirements. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ correspondent