“We saw the smoke,” says Richard Yturriondobeitia, describing his first glimpse of Long Draw, Oregon’s biggest blaze in nearly 150 years. The fire started July 8, a hot, dry day like many before. Lightning struck, and seven days later, more than 550,000 acres across the southeast corner of the state were scorched. Much of that territory is divvied up as livestock allotments under Bureau of Land Management (BLM) control. The fire came racing toward Yturriondobeitia’s grazing lands. He, his family, and friends tried to herd their cattle, to little avail. Forty-mile-an-hour winds knocked them back. “We got the hell out of there.” They saved themselves, he says. “Couldn’t save the animals.” He rattles off numbers as though from a scorecard of a favorite team’s losses: “112 cows, 46 calves, three bulls.”

The United States has seen nearly a fourfold increase in large wildfires in recent decades. The National Interagency Fire Center keeps tally: As of Nov. 23, over 54,000 fires have burned nearly 9.1 million acres this year; about 1.7 million acres above the 10-year average. When megafires roar, forests tend to get the limelight. But wildfire isn’t all about Smokey Bear’s home in the woods. It’s also about the meat on our menu and the ranches where it’s raised.

“This land just blew,” says West Texas Pitchfork Ranch General Manager Brooks Hodges. A May 2011 fire scorched half his ranch — 90,000 acres that have grown nothing but dust devils since. That is until this fall, when a bit of rain finally brought the first signs of green.

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Overall, since recent fires and drought, the Texas cattle population has dwindled from 13 million to 11.9 million. Hodges was lucky; only a few of his animals died. But the ranch shipped many out of state to graze — there simply wasn’t enough forage at home after the blaze. “It’ll take quite a few years,” he says, to grow his herd and put the land back to use. For now, he keeps the remainder of his herd on the unburned half of the ranch.

Wildfire has always threatened ranchers across the West, but the question is: How will a shifting climate affect the views from fire lookout towers? Scientists don’t have all the answers yet, but they have found strong correlations between warming trends and increased fire.

Still, it’s difficult to discern whether climate change has directly caused a particular blaze. Fires behave differently from one ecosystem to another, says Janice Coen, a National Center for Atmospheric Research scientist who specializes in wildfire behavior. In forests, long-term drought can weaken trees, making them susceptible to insects, disease, and fire. But grassland fires are stoked when dry years follow wet years. Rain makes grass grow. More grass means more fuel for a fire, which, Coen says, “is conducive to worse fires.”

Colin Shackelford

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In Ventura, Calif., the County Fire Department calls wildfire “a year-round reality,” with farms and ranches among the most at risk. The department publishes a preparedness manual, instructing ranchers to keep a smart defensible space between vegetation and people, animals, structures, feed, equipment, or anything else susceptible to hot, blowing embers. During emergencies, previously grazed ground can offer animals a safety zone because it’s less likely to carry fire.

When a blaze sweeps across grasslands or snarfs up acres of high desert, it kills a cow’s food. It empties the coffers for a year or two or more. If drought follows fire, that cow’s run of the land might be over.

A cow that survives a fire basically has three potential outcomes: the owner sells it, moves it to alternate range (sometimes out of state), or feeds it hay. The latter is what Yturriondobeitia is doing. It’s what many ranchers do. But it’s not an ideal scenario in the long-term, says Colby Marshall, a rancher and the chair of a task force called RESTOR, organized in the aftermath of the Oregon fires. The group coordinated 17 trucks and 500 tons of hay donations for fire-struck ranching families.

This time of year, many ranch animals eat lingering vegetation and supplemental hay. But this year, after the fires torched the land, ranchers were forced to dip into their hay supplies early. By spring, they’ll start to run out of food and have to buy more. “You’re going to go out and buy the most inexpensive feed you can,” Marshall says. It might be low in protein. It might ultimately compromise the cattle’s health.

But ranchers often have little choice if they don’t want to sell the herd. Finding alternative grazing lands is not easy. “There is a limited quantity of feed,” Marshall says. “That same drought condition was affecting everybody else.”

When fires burn public lands, Marshall says, people start talking about a potential decrease in the areas available for livestock (right now, the BLM administers some 18,000 grazing permits in 16 states, while the U.S. Forest Service issues 8,000). But he thinks the public sometimes misses critical points about livestock grazing: “It’s extremely healthy.” The animals walk around; they eat a lot of grass. Those wide, open spaces allow Marshall and his family to run a certified organic ranch. If grazing grounds are diminished, fewer healthy cattle will make it to market — which means fewer grass-fed steaks will make it to people’s plates.

The RESTOR task force, organized through the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, assembled a diverse group representing ranching, agriculture, economy, science, wildlife, and federal land management to discuss long-term wildfire strategies. The aim: to get everyone talking. The hope: that everyone gets along.

The task force has succeeded in many ways, Marshall says. Key discussion centered on flexibility in grazing policies, depending on weather, wildfire, and other critical factors. For example, he says, it’s customary to keep cattle off BLM lands for two years following fire. “But it’s not a regulatory requirement.” The practice is aimed at restoring land, giving plants time to heal. But under some conditions, he says, that two-year period can act as an open window for a pernicious and highly flammable non-native species, like cheatgrass [PDF], to invade.

Cheatgrass is the western cattle rancher’s scourge. It originated in Europe and Asia, and arrived in North America largely by boat. It spreads like, well, wildfire. “During years of high precipitation, this grass can produce more than 10,000 plants per square yard,” according to the Colorado State University Extension. The plant grows tall and fast, crowding out natives, then dying early in summer to leave dangerous loads of dry tinder. “It becomes the fuel” which feeds extreme grassland fires, Marshall says.

According to the CSU Extension, livestock can effectively combat cheatgrass if allowed to graze heavily twice during spring, when the grass is green before it seeds. But the current two-year post-fire rest period gives cheatgrass “a two-year head start,” Marshall says.

He hopes RESTOR is the start to mutually beneficial conversations among ranchers and land managers. The task force concluded it would be good for all parties to talk more — before and during a fire, not just after the ashes settle.

After all, fire is no stranger to ranch and range — especially these days. During dry years, “you get nervous as summer thunder clouds build,” Marshall says. “You know those clouds may bring much-needed rain … but there is a real chance they will bring lightning, too.”

He can’t control the weather. He can’t control someone else’s cigarette butt or stop an abandoned, smoldering campfire when it billows back to life. But as a rancher, Marshall says: “These thoughts are always on your mind.”

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