Paradise or hell on earth? Non-Use Forest Management Policies Fuel Fires |

Paradise or hell on earth? Non-Use Forest Management Policies Fuel Fires

Ruth Wiechmann
for Tri-State Livestock News
The scent of death and charred flesh mingled with the acrid smoke that burns your eyes. You begin looking in the draws hoping it is not cattle. It always is. Eight cows and three baby calves in a pile at the bottom of a ravine, rushing in terror to escape. A sight you won’t soon forget.

Fires in California are burning rampantly this year. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) reports that 3,754,729 acres have burned as of September 30th with twenty-six confirmed fatalities and nearly eight thousand structures lost to date.

The devastation to the forest ecosystems in the Sierra Nevada Mountains is immeasurable. Wildlife and livestock losses are staggering.

On September 8, when news broke of fire in their cattle range, Dave Daley and his son Kyle, who ranches with him, were sure it could not be as bad as it sounded.

“We had close to four hundred cows in our mountain range, most of them calving or close to calving and ready to gather and bring home in early October,” Daley said. “They were the heart of the herd. Old cows, problems, bought cows and first calf heifers stayed in the valley. Only the good cows who knew the land were there.”

Daley’s family has been running cattle in those mountains since they arrived with the gold rush in 1852.

“We have taken cattle to the Plumas National Forest since before it was designated such,” Daley said. “My Great, Great Grandfather started moving cattle to the high country sometime after he arrived in 1852 in the Oroville area looking for gold. The earliest family diary of driving cattle to our range in the mountains dates back to 1882. They were poor Irish immigrants trying to scratch a living from the land. My folks were self employed ranchers; I grew up in the cattle and timber businesses.”

Daley left home to go to college, getting his Ph.D. in Animal Science 35 years ago at Colorado State, and has spent his life raising cattle and teaching, but the cattle and the mountains are his first love. A cattleman at heart, he is involved in the industry on many levels; past President of the California Cattlemen’s Association, current Chair of the California Cattle Council, Chair of the Forest Service committee for the Public Lands Council and Chair of Federal Lands for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. He has walked the halls of Congress as well as the mountain passes, met with legislators in both Sacramento and Washington, D.C. and is a willing advocate for the cattle community to anyone who will listen.

But when the Bear Fire, now referenced as the North Complex Fire, headed for his cattle, there was nothing he could do.

In an update posted to the US Forest Service/Plumas National Forest page, Jake Cagle reported that wind speeds of forty-five to fifty miles per hour drove the fire at a rate of a thousand acres every half hour on September 8.

After the inferno had gone through his cattle range, Daley was frantic to get to his cows, knowing that some were likely dead, and others injured or dying and in need of attention. Bureaucratic red tape was getting him nowhere, but Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea found a way, providing two sergeants to navigate the road-blocks until Dave and Kyle were in their range.

“On our first day, Kyle and I make a fast trip up to reconnoiter. We are unprepared for the total destruction of everything we have always known. Nothing left and active flames on both sides burning trees and stumps. Shocking. Surreal. We make it to our Fall River corral somewhat hopeful that there would be green and water to mitigate the disaster. Everything is completely gone and we see dead cows as we start down the hill. Everywhere. This is our first step in what will be an impossible week. We go home hoping against hope that we have seen the worst. Little did we realize that it was just the beginning and it could get worse.”

Daley’s daughter Kate, a veterinarian, and younger son Rob, a soldier stationed in Louisiana, both arrived to help with the recovery effort. A few close friends familiar with the mountains showed up to help. With chain saws and alfalfa strapped to four-wheelers they set out, day after day, hoping against hope to find something alive.

“So many people offered to help,” Daley said. “I am grateful but it is difficult to explain how challenging it is to gather in almost 90,000 acres of incredibly difficult terrain. Each canyon and ridge is dotted with logging spur roads that could be choked with down and burning trees. Much of it is unrecognizable in the aftermath of the fire, even to me. Only those with deep, local knowledge of these mountains could help.

“We split up and my crew takes the Lava Top and Ross Creek drainage, while the other half goes towards Twin Bridges and Fall River. It is eerie, and as Rob said, “There is no sound in the Forest, just death.” We are learning. When we traditionally gathered cows, they were always towards the ridge top in the morning and down by water in the afternoon. Now, we find nothing high up, except the occasional dead cow that wasn’t fast enough. We just hunt for the deep holes where there was a chance for water and life.

“You learn as you ride through the apocalyptic murk. Rob’s head goes up and I catch the scent at the same time. The scent of death and charred flesh mingled with the acrid smoke that burns your eyes. You begin looking in the draws hoping it is not cattle. It always is. Eight cows and three baby calves in a pile at the bottom of a ravine, rushing in terror to escape. A sight you won’t soon forget.”

In the aftermath of this fire, searching out his dead cattle, trying desperately to save the survivors, and euthanizing those that are burned too badly to recover, Dave Daley is wondering if his granddaughter, Juni, the seventh generation in the family, will ever know the mountain as he has. Will she get to go on chilly, early morning gathers to bring the cows home in the fall? Will she ever see the forest the same as it was before?

“I do not expect the ecosystem to recover completely in my lifetime,” he said. “And I am not sure anyone knows for sure how long it will take. Some of those trees were 200 years old or more. I think we will have germination right away, but conifers grow slowly. Some of the brushes grow quickly, which could pose another issue.”

As a child in the early 60s, days “going to the mountains” were the greatest ever for my family. It was our playground and our quiet spot. Sure, we worked, but we learned so much about the world, the trees, birds and flowers. And in my family sometimes that may have included learning the scientific name or at least the family of the plant. There were lessons on botany, forestry, geology, archaeology. We didn’t even know we were learning but we imbibed it until it became a part of our souls.

And then my kids. For them, the mountains were the best! Rolling into a little seat behind Grandma and Grandpa to “go hunt for cows” as we gathered in the Fall. Hot chocolate from Grandma as soon as we got there. On cold, dusty or wet days, it was sometimes discouraging, but they loved it and still do. It was their sanctuary where “no matter what happens, this will always be here.” And now it is gone. It is a death and we are still in shock and not sure how to move forward. What will my granddaughter know of the truth and grounding that comes from nature? Will we gather cows in the mountains while I sing cowboy tunes off key and she sips hot chocolate? I am overcome.

There are six generations who have loved that land, and my new granddaughter, Juni, is the seventh. And I find myself overcome with emotion as I think of the things she will never see, but only hear in stories told to her by Grandad. We all love the mountains. They are part of us and we are part of them. All destroyed. In one day. I am angry.

The fire, fueled by overgrown brush and a tangle of bureaucracy, regulations, red tape, policy, litigation, and political debate, has destroyed the beauty of the forest and taken a high toll on Daleys’ herd. Out of the four hundred head of cows they took to the mountain in the spring, only about one hundred head are found alive. Besides reeling from the emotional toll of scouring the charred hills for dead animals, and the financial toll their loss will affect, Daley is frustrated with the endless debate and side taking both in Washington, D.C. and in Sacramento that in the end benefit no one and does not help the land. He’s angry that fifty years of regulations made by people who are far removed from the land have turned his beloved mountains into a tinderbox.

But ‘quit’ is not in his vocabulary. He has cattle to care for and he will continue to make his voice heard.

“Mega-fires are a recent product of lack of use of fire, less grazing and over-regulation,” Daley said. “The guidelines followed by the feds on National Forest and the State on State Parks lands are ‘one size fits all,’ but such regulations are not a solution in diverse ecosystems. We have already had six of the twenty largest fires in California history in 2020. The North Complex Fire has eclipsed 316,000 acres and is still burning. To me this is very personal, but this is a much bigger problem than my family having our cattle killed. We must change our land management practices if we expect the West to survive. It is best done locally, not from DC or Sacramento.”

Right now, Daley says, the only buffer to these disasters are private, well managed, grazed landscapes. They may still burn, but the fires are not as catastrophic and can be controlled.

Today, when we meet up, Kyle and Kate had great news. They found sixteen head at our Twin Bridges corral! The largest group to date. I had baited it with alfalfa last night and there were cattle standing in the little corral of temporary panels. Remarkable. Two of them are heifers that I gave Kyle and Jordan (my daughter in-law and Juni’s mom) for their wedding. Kyle branded them with my Dad’s original brand just to keep them straight. Someone in our crew said Dad gathered them for us so we wouldn’t miss them. Maybe he did. My Dad was a cow whisperer who has been gone over four years after roaming the mountains for almost 90. Maybe he is still helping lead us and the cattle home. I turn away as I feel emotion begin to rise. Again. For some reason, I am more emotional when I find the live cattle than those that died. I don’t know why? Maybe thinking what they went through and I wasn’t there to help? And, more frightening, death has become more expected than life.

I completely dread taking my Mom to see this tragedy. She will be 90 in less than a month and still loves the mountains and gathering cows. She is tough but this could break anyone. She worked these mountains with my Dad from 1948 when she was 18, he was 21, and they had just married. She told me in later years that she had always loved the outdoors but really was “sort of afraid of cows” since she had not ever been around them. She never told Dad though and learned to be one of the best trackers and gatherers the mountains have ever seen, knowing every plant, tree and road.

Daley says that historic management practices need to be re-implemented to reduce fuel loads in western forests.

“That means more control burns in the wintertime when we have the right conditions,” he said. “This is not just California but everywhere west of the Rockies. Ranchers are trying to do more burns but are saddled with regulatory hurdles, including liability. The feds, state and county need to assist with these burns and assume liability. The money spent on fire fighting could be better served on prevention. Grazing plays a key as well. State and federal lands need to be grazed more vigorously. State and Federal agencies need to collaborate and work together toward increased grazing and removing roadblocks to control burns.”

Day four of the recovery effort. I hold out little hope for live cattle. We have to get to Hartman Bar Ridge between the middle fork and south branch of the Feather River. It is the furthest north, most breathtaking and the hardest to access. One road in and one road out, choked with downed and sometimes burning trees. We see a burnt bear cub trying to climb a tree, two miles farther a mature bear, burnt but staying in the water trying to ease the pain. We give them both a chance because they made it this far. We don’t euthanize even though our brains say we should. Our hearts say let them try.

We have about six miles of road to make passable to get stock trailers through, but we make short work of it. Sometimes you can travel a quarter mile and sometimes a hundred feet. But chainsaws and strong hands get us there.

I have passed several streams today and tried to wade across one looking for cattle. It strikes me as strange. All the creeks have close to double the flow of last week. I see some springs running that haven’t been active for years. And it hits me. We have released the water that the brush was sucking from the land. The Native Americans were right again. Observe. Let nature talk.

We pulled up the grade to Hartman and Whiskey Hill, and there were cattle tracks in the burn! Lots of them. I couldn’t believe it. The fire roared up out of the middle fork so quickly I expected nothing to be alive. I had myself prepared. But we found cattle and some in pretty good shape. It was slow going. Incredibly steep and rugged with lost, hungry cattle. In one pocket we picked up 14 head with nary a scratch. Two old cows (12 plus years which is old for a cow) and a bunch of young stock. Those old ladies knew where to hide! Wisdom from days gone by.

After a long day, we had 32 alive and loaded. Some may not make it but we had to bring them home to give them a chance. They made it this far. More jarring, though, was to walk down the drainage by the old Mountain House Ridge corral and find 26 dead, spread from top to bottom. That fetid smell of death permeated the walk I used to love.

Even with the dead cattle on Hartman Ridge that we found, why did we find over half alive here and nowhere else? If anything, I assumed this steep ridge gave them no chance at all. And I realized that there had been a much smaller fire here about five years ago. The country was more open and the fire moved quickly. Less fuel and more things lived. Trees, wildlife, and cows.

Dave Daley grew up hearing the stories from his Dad and Grandad of the “last man out” lighting the forest floor to burn the low undergrowth. Their generations knew to reduce the ladder fuels that spread the fire to the canopy and open the forest up for wildlife.

“It was a pact between our friends the Native Americans who had managed it this way for 13,000 years, the loggers, miners and ranchers,” he said. “They knew ecology and botany and wildlife. They worked together because they loved and knew the land.

“It was the early 1960’s and snow was already on the ground in December on our foothill ranch. I would have been about four and holding my Grandfather’s hand as he lit some piles of brush on fire to open the landscape. It was the practice he had learned from generations before. And the CDF (now Cal Fire) crew showed up, put out the fire, and lectured him for burning. My Grandad was the kindest, gentlest and funniest man I have ever known. And he was mad. It was the beginning of the end for our forest home. And it has proceeded at an unprecedented rate.

“Try a control burn in the winter now and watch someone cite you because it is not an approved ‘burn day,’ you had the wrong permit and approval and you might impact air quality. It is beyond moronic. How is the choking air quality that has blanketed the west this past month, when people can’t go outside without a mask, a better alternative?”

The California Cattle Council, of which Daley is a member, is working on educating the public on the benefits of grazing and control burns, practices that may be ancient but are nonetheless effective solutions for fire and fuels reduction today. And tomorrow.

By the end of a grueling day five, we have seven head loaded. Five of them are cattle we had seen before and were just able to get portable panels to and load, three of which are badly burned and will get a chance for feed and water before they will most likely die or need to be euthanized. We know of three more live cattle that we have seen and not loaded. That may be it. Over one hundred brought home, so far, but I will be surprised if eighty live. Many of those who live will have lost their baby calves to fire. There are no words. 20% of the herd we drove to the mountains on June 1. Maybe.

Kyle and I will continue the search, compulsively walking creeks and canyons that we have already searched, hoping something straggles in behind. You never know and you can’t quit. That is not who we are.

And now we go on. What will happen? This is devastating emotionally and financially. And I am not sure of the next steps. I do know this: We must change our land management practices if we expect the West to survive. It is best done locally, not from DC or Sacramento, but I have tilted at windmills before.

We won’t quit. We need to get tougher and stronger. We never have quit for 140 years and I won’t be the first. Suffer the bureaucratic maze and try to make incremental change. And, as always, work with nature. I have to. Juni Daley, and the next generation, needs to see the mountains the same way we have seen them forever, to have hot chocolate on a cold fall morning and gather cows. It can’t be just stories from her Grandad.

We found an orphan heifer calf today, about two weeks old. Her mother didn’t make it. Kyle stumbled on her hiding in one of the few living willow patches along a stream. He followed her for over an hour straight up from the bottom of a canyon. We caught her and she is now on a bottle getting milk replacer. That rescue was good for my heart. My Granddaughter Juni’s first heifer I decide! They can grow up together.

We saw life at Fall River today. Green grass trying to sprout at a spring. Life is resilient. So are we. Next year. And the next 100.

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