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Stories from the valley

Worry Season

Contributed by Dan Macon

This week, we had our first blood-red, smoky sunsets of the summer – thanks to the Hog Fire burning to our northeast in Lassen County. And so last night, after work and chores were over, I filled my backpack pump, grabbed a fire tool from the tool shed, and equipped my truck for the rest of fire season. From now until the first soaking rain comes this fall, I’ll worry about wildfire here in the Sierra foothills.

Like many ranchers, our little sheep outfit operates mostly on leased property at some distance from our home place north of Auburn. Our replacement ewe lambs and feeder lambs are on irrigated pasture about three miles away. Surrounded by green grass, they are fairly safe from the immediate threat of fire. Our ewes, on the other hand, are grazing dry forage further from the house (about seven miles away). These are the sheep we’ll worry about for the next 45 days (until they come back to the irrigated pasture, too).

fire pump bag

To mitigate my worry, I keep fire tools and five gallons of water in my truck, and another set stays with the sheep. We have made evacuation and shelter-in-place plans for the sheep, depending on how much warning we have. And we try to reach out to law enforcement and other local officials – since the sheep are not at my home address, we may have difficulty reaching them if roads are blocked in an emergency. We also identify nearby safe zones (neighboring irrigated pasture or horse paddocks that are grazed down to dirt) in the event of a fast-moving fire.

In addition to the immediate threat of summer fire, we also worry about the longer-term impact that a fire could have on our forage supply. We typically rely on dry grass from this year to feed our sheep until the rains come and the grass starts growing. Some years, this happens in October; in other years (like 2019), we don’t get enough rain to germinate new grass until Thanksgiving. The dry grass last fall had to carry our ewes through January. Had that dry grass burned, we’d have had to scramble to find alternative forage – or sell sheep.

Thankfully, we’ve never been directly impacted by wildfire – but that doesn’t diminish my worry. In addition to the red sunset last night, I was alarmed to see fire planes and a helicopter flying low over our home place in the general direction of the sheep. A quick driving tour relieved my worry – the fire was further south and was quickly controlled. But the sound of firefighting aircraft, and the smoky atmosphere, were a solemn reminder of the dangerous months ahead.