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Ranchers take stock of rangeland, forage damage from fires

A cluster of wildfires in California’s Butte, Yuba and Nevada counties in October burned through lots of rangeland and destroyed some hay barns. On one ranch, they caused employee houses to burn from the inside out.
Tim Hearden

Capital Press

Published on November 14, 2017 2:37PM

Colleen Cecil, manager of the Butte County, Calif., Farm Bureau, checks photos of damage to farmland from recent fires in the area. She said mostly rangeland was burned by the fires, although a few structures were lost.

Tim Hearden/Capital Press

Colleen Cecil, manager of the Butte County, Calif., Farm Bureau, checks photos of damage to farmland from recent fires in the area. She said mostly rangeland was burned by the fires, although a few structures were lost.

OROVILLE, Calif. — Rancher Kurt Albrecht was away at a meeting when a neighbor called to tell him of the wildfire that was rapidly approaching his property.

He and his son drove home from nearby Orland, Calif., and by the time they got to Oroville, they could see the Cherokee Fire on the top of Table Mountain overlooking the city.

“It was a huge, wide expanse,” Albrecht said of the blaze that started Oct. 8 and charred 8,417 acres, mostly rangeland. “It was many miles wide and headed in our direction, so we raced home.”

The two ran three trailer loads of goats and sheep off their ranch and let their cows stay in a section of irrigated pasture behind a fire break. The fire swept through their property, taking out a hay barn and three employee houses and devastating the pasture they were using as winter feed for the livestock.

“When we came back for our third load, the fire had come off the top of the table and gotten into a canyon behind our place that hasn’t burned since the ’20s,” Albrecht said. “We pulled out for the last time, and it had already gotten into the barns and was headed between our two larger houses.”

Albrecht is one of numerous ranchers who are still taking stock of their feed and other losses after wind-driven wildfires swept through parts of Northern California in October, killing at least 43 people and destroying 8,900 houses and other buildings.

State officials estimate the overall insured losses at $3.3 billion so far, among the highest of any U.S. wildfire in recent decades, according to The Associated Press. While the fires spared most cattle, they’ve forced ranchers to supplement feed to their livestock while their burned pastures recover, which could take a couple of years.

While the world was focused on fires in the iconic wine country, four blazes were scorching the rolling hills and mountains of Butte, Yuba and Nevada counties, burning 17,037 acres and destroying or damaging 414 buildings, according to the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Much of that ground is winter range, and the fires also caused hay loss, said Colleen Cecil, manager of the Butte County Farm Bureau.

“The biggest loss will be any feed that was there,” Cecil said. “The silver lining from a fire burning property is that you can get rid of weeds. But those are decisions you’d like to make.”

A few ranches, including Table Mountain Ranch in Oroville, did suffer “significant devastation,” she said.

The fires were the latest event to rattle the Oroville area after the Oroville Dam’s near failure in February led to the evacuation of about 188,000 area residents and threatened a large portion of the Eastern Sacramento Valley’s $1.5 billion agriculture industry.

“I don’t know what (else) God has in store for us,” Cecil said.

Albrecht’s Chaffin Orchards just north of Oroville produces olives and citrus and stone fruit as well as livestock. The fire stayed out of the orchards and spared the two family residences, but Albrecht will have to replace housing for four of his seven permanent employees.

Two of the employee houses were built of concrete blocks with metal roofs, but the fire outside was so hot that it caused things inside to catch fire, and the homes “burned from the inside out,” Albrecht said.

“These guys have been in these homes for 30 years,” he said. “They’re long-term employees with families. We’re going to have to figure out other accommodations for them. ... It’s not a cheap operation.”

Several federal programs are available to help ranchers impacted by wildfires. They include the Livestock Indemnity Program for animal losses, the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program for forage and the Emergency Conservation Program for fence and other infrastructure repairs.

For information on the programs, contact a local Farm Service Agency office or visit www.fsa.usda.gov .


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