Good spring rains have fallen in many areas of the West, which is a sigh of relief for most ranchers in the region. Still, in many areas, rain is the exception rather than the rule. Drought in the West persists while grass and fuel loads are high and fire dangers remain high, especially in the far West and West Coast.
The big fire right now is in Arizona, the Slide fire between Flagstaff and Sedona, a big time vacation area. This area has had good timely rains the past few years and has produced plenty of forage. One lifelong rancher east of Flagstaff told me they have the best feed they have ever had. They are also concerned about the fire fuel loads in the area. Firefighters are burning some of that fuel load to extinguish the Slide fire; crews have been back burring to reduce the fuel load that could create a catastrophic wildfire and do some real damage.
This area around Flagstaff has gone through some interesting changes and views about forest fire. They have experienced many great fires. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has an initiative to clean the forest and mitigate fire potential by removing dead and downed timber, beetle kill, thinning forests. They want a tree population to be between 25 and 125 trees per acre, rather than 400 to 600 trees per acre, to create a healthier forest. And many other U.S. forests are going through similar restoration efforts.
The city of Flagstaff has entered into a partnership with the USFS to help control wildfire and maintain their ecosystem. The city passed a $10 million bond issue to help clear the biomass and build new roads to improve fire crew access. This is an example of communities that are starting to realize they can’t rely on the USFS to take care of wildfires and they need to manage their forest ecosystem better.
Fuel loads in most western states are high and we are still in questionable drought conditions. California is in particularly tough shape and the entire state is wide open for wildfires. The state has passed the point of getting any more rain and reservoirs are in dire condition. They are firmly in the midst of their dry season.
California grew some feed this winter and spring but there was no stock water, so many range lands went ungrazed, leaving a large fuel load to attract fires. The National Interagency Fire Center, in Boise, ID, published a report, “National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook” through their Predictive Services Agency that said that fire potential through August is way above normal for the California coast, and is rising fast for eastern California, southern Oregon, western Nevada and southern Utah.
This outfit measures the fuel loads in various regions as they relate to these various areas. It tells me that the federal government and the land management agencies are very aware of the fire situation in the West. However, agencies haven’t understood or are unwilling to engage in land management practices that utilize grazing to keep these fuel loads down to a safe level. Every day we hear stories from ranchers on public lands who tell us that the agencies don’t get it.
We’ve seen a new level of fire suppression and extermination from the rural community in recent years. Rangeland fire protection associations have started to spring up. Oregon approved another one last week. Ranchers and stakeholders are slowly being trained and equipped to be the first responders to range and forest fires. But as far as we can tell, these associations are being helped with only equipment and training to put them out; not prevent them.
Sound fire suppression efforts are part of this picture, as well. This last row over BLM management in Battle Mountain, NV, is another example of stagnant management. The BLM saw the grass levels as a recovering rangeland where ranchers saw a resource not utilized by cattle as a massive range fire waiting to happen. There is a real paradigm shift in land management practices that needs to happen. And it can’t happen with endangered species mandates and locking up habitat. Managing habitat I’ll go along with, but just letting nature take its own course has proven it’s a disaster waiting to happen.
We’ve seen it a hundred times where active management has been curtailed by negative ideological views toward ranching and logging. If folks really want healthy ecosystems, they should understand that they don’t happen on their own. They happen with active management that includes brush control, grazing, timber harvest. I know, it’s an old story but it remains the same old story. — PETE CROW