CA ag economy takes hit from massive fire

Sep 20, 2013

A California fire that has consumed 400 square miles of land in and around Yosemite National Park has left a painful mark on the state’s agricultural economy.

Many of the thousands of cattle grazing in the area where the massive fire started on Aug. 17 are still unaccounted for. While the fire threatened thousands of homes, and burned 111 structures and 11 homes, it’s the lost grazing lands that will continue to wreak havoc on producers in the coming years.

It is estimated that about 4,000 cows were ranging there when the Rim Fire ignited, and ranchers are still working to locate missing cattle.

“They go out every day, gathering the cows they can find, the ones that have made it into the green areas,” said Susan Forbes, a national forest staffer. “They’re finding pockets of livestock and concentrating on removing them as fast as they can.” Forbes said 12 of 36 grazing areas in the park were affected.

“I don’t know how we are going to deal with it,” Justin Oldfield, California Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) Vice President of Government Relations. “We are already running into the traditional road blocks.”

Getting around costly and time-consuming permits to remove dead wood and the remaining good timber will be a priority in the coming months, he added. But the need for better forest management practices is the underlying concern.

Overgrowth in the timber added fuel to the raging fire.

While it is considered the third largest fire in California, the economic consequences of the fire will exceed all others, Oldfield said. The timber resources alone put it over the top.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, the fire has left a 60 square mile contiguous barren moonscape in the Sierra Nevada mountains that experts say is larger than any burned in centuries.

“In other words, it’s nuked,” Jay Miller, senior wildland fire ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, told local reporters. “If you asked most of the fire ecologists working in the Sierra Nevada, they would call this unprecedented.”

Forbes told the Chronicle that the blaze devastated 12 of 36 grazing grounds in the park. Herds of cattle are now scattered over thousands of acres—making evacuation efforts a huge challenge.

California accounts for 7.4 percent of the U.S. national revenue for livestock and livestock products. It’s also the number one state in cash farm receipts, making up 11.6 percent of the U.S. total, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA).

Cattle and calves were California’s fifth leading commodity two years ago, according to CDFA data.

The fire was caused by an illegal fire set by a hunter, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Because of high fire danger across the region, the Forest Service had banned fires outside of developed camping areas more than a week before the fire started. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor