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Stories from the valley

Smoky Skies

Contributed by Dan Macon

Last week, I took a livestock guardian dog pup to a cattle ranch in northeastern California. My trip took me into and over the Sierra Nevada on the day after the River Fire ignited near Colfax (10 miles to our east). And as it turned out, on the day that the Dixie Fire to our north became the second-largest fire in California history.

Driving back down US-395 towards Susanville, the sky became increasingly eerie and dark. I stopped briefly at a rest area between Madeline and Litchfield in Lassen County just before 5 p.m. to take a photo of the red sky – and ended up taking a video to capture the sound of crickets chirping well before actual sundown. The darkness only increased as I drove further south; street lights were on in Standish when I stopped for fuel about 30 minutes later. Ash from the forests around the towns of Chester and Westwood fell on my windshield as I filled my gas tank.

Since we run our sheep on dry annual rangeland in the Foothills during the summer months, fire is never really out of mind. I carry a fire tool and a 5-gallon pack back pump in my truck until it rains in the fall. I have gloves and a long-sleeve cotton shirt in the cab, just in case. I’ve never had to use any of this equipment in an emergency, but these seem like prudent preparations – especially since our fire season seems to lengthen and grow more intense year after year.

Even at our small scale, we would have difficulty evacuating our sheep in the event of wildfire. As I write this, we have our rams here at our home place; our lambs are grazing on irrigated pasture about 3 miles away; our ewes are on dry forage 7 miles to our west. A wind-driven fire could cover that much distance in a matter of hours. As a consequence, we’ve made plans to shelter our livestock in place – to identify areas where they could be herded out of danger until a fire goes past them. Larger-scale operations make similar plans – moving sheep or cattle out of harm’s way is a complicated process. Sometimes, as a number of friends learned during last year’s tragic Bear Fire, the fire moves more quickly than we can respond.

We also take steps to protect our operation. Like most of our neighbors, we make sure we’ve cleared all flammable vegetation from around our home. We extend this defensible space to our barns, as well. On our leased grazing land, we work with landlords to create fire breaks. We use our ewes to consume fine fuels (dry grass) to reduce the fire danger in the community where we graze in the summer.

Like most ranchers, I watch the skyline this time of year. I listen for the distinctive sound of fire planes going over – when I hear them, I gauge by their altitude and direction how close the fire might be to us. I look for smoke.

As I write this evening, Auburn is blanketed by smoke (as we have been since Friday morning). Fire is a part of life in our Mediterranean climate – smoke in August isn’t that unusual. Drought, however, intensifies our risk – our vegetation is as dry now as it typically gets in late September or early October when it doesn’t rain. We’re being extra cautious when it comes to fire – I hope you are, too.