Summer of fire deals ranchers a tough hand |

Summer of fire deals ranchers a tough hand

Heather Hamilton
for Tri-State Livestock News
The Oil Creek Fire, located in Weston County, Wyoming, consumed 63,318 acres of primarily privately owned land this summer. While structure losses were at a minimum, numerous area producers saw devastating losses of grass, livestock and fences that will take months, if not years, to recover. Courtesy photo/ Charlene Beachler

The 2012 fire season started early with a vengeance, and continued to wreak havoc across the western U.S. throughout the summer months. Ranchers in numerous states felt the impact and devastation of fire related losses on owned and leased land. As things move forward, producers are regrouping, with no plans of giving up despite significant losses in some areas.

John Sides, who ranches east of Smithwick, SD, and was among producers impacted by an early-season fires, started by lightning on April 25.

“The fire was started approximately three miles north of our ranch, and before I could get there it had traveled about four miles to the southeast. Winds varied early in the fire and were gusting as high as 50-60 miles per hour. Between 10,000 and 12,000 of the total 18,000 acres it burned were consumed in the first two hours,” Sides said, adding that the confusion involved in the first several hours of the fire resulted in it being named twice; once as the Hay Canyon Fire, and also as the Wick Fire.

“It took our entire summer lease, which is located on Forest Service land, and roughly 1,000 acres of our winter pasture. We are a cow-calf operation and were in the middle of calving at the time, and were also about to turn out on the summer lease. We had to remain in our winter pasture, and that’s where the cows are now,” Sides explained the impact the fire had to his operation.

He added that while he normally grazes in the winter, this year he will be feeding hay he has stockpiled.

“We didn’t lose any structures or hay stacks. It burned right up to the edge of one stack, and I still don’t know how they ever saved it. You can look at the stack and see a few burned stems sticking out. If they had been 10 or 15 seconds later it would have been lost,” Sides said of one miraculous event during the fire, adding that there was an excellent response of firefighters and that he was very impressed by the effort they put forth to get the fire out.

Despite the fast response, recovery has been a slow process. The Forest Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) are purchasing fencing materials and making plans for rebuilding fences. Sides is expecting to be able to use his Forest Service lease next summer if there is enough moisture in the interim to grow something.

“In the first two weeks following the fire we had all our private fence fixed. Then, with no hay this year, we just continued on fencing. Now our fences are all up and in good shape and we’re ready to concentrate on putting up a bumper hay crop next year when it rains,” he added with a chuckle.

Montana Stockgrowers President and rancher Watty Taylor lives south of Busby, MT, on the edge of the area devastated by fire over the course of the summer and which has recently been designated a disaster area.

“The fires have basically run from the Crow Agency, which is on I-90, east to Broadus, and that is about a 90 mile distance. From north to south they’ve been primarily located in a 30 mile wide area. They’re certainly not all contiguous, but within that area over 600,000 acres have been consumed this year. Two Indian reservations, a large percentage of private land and the Custer National Forest have all received losses,” Taylor explained.

To put it into perspective, Taylor said that approximately 37 of 54 Forest Service permittees were burned out of their allotments, and 250 miles of perimeter fence and 150 miles of cross fencing were lost on the permit. At this point the Forest Service is saying they are unlikely to allow any cattle back on permits next year until the grass has had one year to go to seed.

“In some cases there have been over 100 head of cattle lost in a single bunch. It’s been very slow getting cattle sorted and relocated because the temperatures have been running in the upper 90s and low 100s every day,” Taylor stated, adding that as time passes more ranchers are able to assess total cattle losses, but many still don’t know where they stand.

Many ranchers have been able to find places to take cattle, and people have offered up extra range in places where a few head can be housed. Others have prematurely placed cattle on winter pasture and started supplementing with cake, or temporarily placed livestock in feedlots.

“I’ve also heard of a lot of people coming in to help, and the area ranchers are very glad for that. Hunters and other people who may use their property throughout the year have come in and built fence, or delivered bundles of steel posts or other supplies. Those things are all very much appreciated, as are the firefighters that come in and help in these situations,” he stated.

Jim and Julie Pederson are still trying to get back to day to day business after the Oil Creek fire in Weston County Wyoming which consumed their entire 7,400 acre lease that they had over 300 cows summering on.

“It was devastating. With the drought we planned to be in that lease until January. We calve late, and were about two weeks in when the fire went through our lease. We lost 60 cows, 59 calves and three haystacks. Afterward we had a vet check our remaining cows, and another 40 had bags so badly burned they can’t raise a calf and will have to be sold as killer cows,” Julie Peterson said of the losses her family sustained.

“You think you’re past it and it won’t affect you as badly anymore, and then you get the survivors down and they’re still calving and you’re trying to work them and help them. Some would have a healthy calf that got right up and she would lick him off and everything, but her bag would be completely burned off so you would have to bum the calf. That is very difficult,” Pederson said of the ongoing struggles after the fire.

In recent weeks, the family has made plans to sell a percentage of their cows. They also had replacement heifers at another location which will be sold as a result of the loss of ground. Pederson notes they feel very fortunate this was just one place they leased, and that they didn’t lose their entire operation like some people did in the fire, which was primarily located on private land.

“Going forward erosion will be a big deal. It’s rough country and heavy rains or melts will have a big impact. It’s also still so dry that who knows how long it will take to regrow grass. Some spots are starting to green up a little, but others are just scorched and as it grows back weeds will become another big issue. Breathers on water lines are all melted, the fences are gone, and before you even rebuild fence you will have to cut all the dead trees so they don’t fall on the new fence,” Pederson stated.

“I believe our local firefighters have been heroes all summer long. Our county fire warden is Daniel Tysdal, and he’s one of the best anywhere. His crews did a tremendous job fighting this fire. Where I struggled was when the Government took over and created irrational situations, including one where a dozer was sitting there with an operator, knowing the fire was coming over the hill, and he wouldn’t move the dozer until he had orders from someone sitting at a desk somewhere saying to put a line in. When they won’t give the order to put the thing out, or say to back off and only concentrate on protecting structures, which they’re great at, then it becomes very frustrating,” Pederson said.

“I know our story is not unique; many people have been devastated by fires this summer. We feel very blessed that no one was hurt, we had insurance on our cows, and exceptional firefighters, friends and neighbors that helped out. The after effects of this fire will be around for many years,” she added, with agreement from Sides and Taylor in their respective situations.