Lack of grazing, prescribed burns adds fuel to California’s wildfires, say experts and stakeholders
It broke Soul Food Farm owner Alexis Koefold’s heart to lose 80% of her Solano County homestead at the fury of the Hennessey Fire.
She was forced to evacuate at 1 a.m. Wednesday when the eastern portion of the raging LNU Lightning Complex fire exploded over from Napa County’s Lake Berryessa, descending on her Pleasants Valley Road neighborhood north of Vacaville.
With 10 minutes to evacuate, she couldn’t even get her animals out.
“I wouldn’t leave the farm. I was afraid I couldn’t get back in,” she told the Business Journal.
It didn’t have to be this way, according to many land management experts and stakeholders. They believe these types of catastrophic fires could be prevented with more prescribed burns and natural grazing by sheep, goats and cows.
Miraculously, Koefold’s olive orchard, lavender field and house remained standing and all the livestock found a way to survive. The sheep and cows scattered, and the chickens flew the coup. When she returned on Friday, she found them all gathered, as if they knew where home was.
“So many friends lost everything — a litany of them. The fire skipped around. There was no time,” she said, while pondering the future of her 20-year-old farm.
The Solano County Farm Bureau states that the Hennessey Fire has consumed at least 120 barns. The organization is beefing up its website in its efforts to be a one-stop resource for farmers and ranchers trying to navigate loss on such a massive scale. In particular, hay is needed to help feed the livestock that survived.
“We’ve lost multiple farms,” Solano County Agricultural Commissioner Ed King told the Business Journal. These farms and ranches, which include horses, sheep, goats and alpacas that perished, represent livestock in a state defined as the largest agricultural economy in the world.
Still, King tried to remain upbeat. Agriculture, California’s cash-cow industry, is resilient enough to come back, as it has every time a gigantic wildfire mows down an area filled with diverse produce and livestock.
California Farm Bureau spokesman Dave Kranz is also convinced the state’s ag reputation should not be placed in jeopardy if year after year devastating fires consume the landscape and infrastructure along with them.
“I think we’re a long way from that. It’s such a big state. No other state has this variety of conditions and soils like California. Also, it has the expertise and resilience that’s hard to have in the middle of a crisis,” he said, adding that livestock and “certainly a lot” of grazing land were affected. “Everybody is concerned about the grapes. Fortunately, the vines tend to add firebreaks, and they’re more fire resistant. Unfortunately, they’ve had a fair amount of experience in this.”
What kind of long-term impact these raging infernos will have on the environment and ecology of California remains to be seen, Kranz pointed out.
“Fire is just a part of the ecology here,” he said.
Research on fire prevention
But how can California keep fire in check?
Two top academic natural resources experts believe it’s time for government and private enterprise to get serious about managing lands by eliminating barriers to additional prescribed burns and more grazing.
“Unfortunately, we have to go through these kinds of disasters to draw attention to this. We have to bring more tools to the table. We do this by reducing their probability and building more productive, resilient communities because there’s always going to be fire,” said Leslie Roche, a cooperative extension specialist in rangeland science and management at UC Davis.
Roche insists that the state’s departure from livestock grazing to manage lands has “added fuel to the fire,” with its negative assumptions on environmental impacts starting in the 1960s.
The academic cites the “cultural burns” Native Americans conducted in the pre-1800s that worked well to manage the ranch lands. Plus, more grazing animals roamed the pasturelands, keeping the vegetation to a more manageable height and context.
For one thing, the “brush lands” consist of invasive scrub brush like madrone and Manzanita, which firefighters refer to as “fire bush,” that overtake the grasslands. But even the high grass presents a problem if it’s allowed to grow over 4 feet high without prescribed burns reducing its size, Sheila Barry, a UC Santa Clara cooperative extension director and natural resources adviser contends.
Barry estimated large losses in not only the infrastructure that supports the farming but in the soils the livestock feeds on. When fire burns so hot taking a massive amount of structures in its wake, the ground is consumed and robbed for up to two years of the biomass necessary for recovery of the soils the animals forage on. The scarred landscape leaves an uninhabitable white ash and opportunity for brush to take over.