Life on the High Desert: Fire Season

Coming from Missouri it was almost impossible to wrap my mind around this natural disaster called “range fires.” Everything is so wet in Missouri and grass growth is just enormous all summer long, but it doesn’t take much to understand how the range can catch on fire when you come out to the desert and walk through the sagebrush and bunch grass and see what can catch on fire. Everything is dry and it can take very little to start a fire.

Two of our friends came to visit us and we took them for a hike.
Two of our friends came to visit us and we took them for a hike.

What causes fires?: This is a loaded question. The majority of range fires are started by dry lightening storms that form over the desert. There is typically little to no rain to speak of and lots of lightening that just strikes dry ground and can easily cause a fire to ignite. Another cause is human stupidity or error. Since almost all the fires are on federal land, people are allowed to camp, use ATV’s, shoot guns, smoke cigarettes, etc. We don’t have a problem with people doing these things, but it is a problem when their stupidity or error causes a fire to start. This can land them with major fines or jail time if the person is caught.

Ecology: The one major thing that causes fire to become catastrophic is overgrowth of brush and grass. We are talking about federal land that is owned by the government. Local ranchers in the area lease the land from the government and their cows graze the lands. However, since it is the government we are talking about, the land (in our opinion) is not managed as well as it could be. There is a lot more grass on the rangeland than cows can eat and due to better management over the last 50 years there is more forage, but never an increase in cow numbers (in most cases there is a decrease in cow numbers). Unlike states that get lots of rain, the grass on the high desert grows and stands, there is not enough moisture to knock the grass down and allow it to decompose, so it must be grazed for the grass to continue to grow healthily every year. In areas that grazing of cattle have been completely removed the grass is dying because it is trying to grow through dead growth every year and eventually it gets choked to death.  All that standing dry grass is an inferno waiting to happen.

As ranchers we see fire as a good thing in certain cases, but the fires today are not like the fire 50-100 years ago. Yes, in the past there were poorer grazing practices and the land was grazed very heavily, making it difficult for grass to grow, due to non-stop grazing, but the range fires were not nearly as intense, because it didn’t have the same fuel as the range lands today provide. When you have an overgrowth of brush and grass spread over hundreds of thousands of acres in very secluded areas it becomes extremely difficult to put these fires out. Hot temperatures and winds fuel the fires and even with the best fire fighting equipment and trained firefighters  cannot fight against a fire that has all the elements and fuel to take over.

The ranchers have a vested interest in preserving the range lands and are typically the first and last people on the fire, because if the range land that you run your cattle on burns, it can be up to 3 years before you can bring your cattle back to the range again, making it a tough couple years. We believe we are stewards of the land and that the land was designed for hoofed ruminants.

This year is a particularly dry year. We didn’t get very much snow this winter and very little spring rains to speak of, so we knew that it was going to be a dangerous years for fires, but even for fire season, it started very early. The first fire we had was during Mother’s Day weekend on a small piece of federal land not too far from our house. It is believed that the fire was caused by human error/stupidity since there were no storms that day. Thankfully it was still early in the season, not extremely hot and quick thinking neighbors that were able to get to the fire quickly and get it surrounded before it took off up a canyon. That early fire was a wakeup call to the ranchers to get their fire-fighting equipment ready, because it was going to be a hot year with lots of potential fires.

On July 1st was the first major fire of the season. My husband and his brothers were out moving cows from one of our pastures that we lease from the government to another one and were coming home in the late evening. A strong thunderstorm moved through our valley and I prayed that it would bring an immense amount of rain with it and it did! It down poured in our little valley and out on certain parts of the range land, in fact it rained so hard where my husband was that they barely made it home through the quickly forming mud. That’s why I almost couldn’t believe it when my neighbor called and told me that there was a range fire about 6 miles north of our range lands. Apparently the storm had dumped lots of rain around our area, but as it traveled the rain stopped but the lighting continued.beautiful rain glorious rain

It wasn’t long before our crew was home from riding all day and they  changed clothes, gathered their supplies and out the door they went. Now for a wife it is difficult when your husband goes out to a fire. They leave very quickly, give you a kiss and you hope they remember to try to contact you at some point to let you know how things are going and if they will ever come home. The first 24 hours of fighting a fire is very critical to the outcome of how big and destructive the fire gets, so very rarely do you hear much from your fire-fighting crew in that first day. The nights are long and tireless, since most of the fires begin in the late evening and it is the coolest and best time of day to fight a ranging fire.

That creepy looking glow outside your window letting you know there's a fire close to home.
That creepy looking glow outside your window letting you know there’s a fire close to home.

However, adrenaline and gatorade will only take a rancher so far when he is fighting a fire, so at some point they must stop, rest, and take a nap. During this particular fire the local ranchers were right on the fire and fighting it as hard as they could. The BLM was behind and didn’t make much of an appearance until the next day due to lack of resources and other fires that were started in the area. Sean came home the next evening for a very short period of time. He had a shower, a good full meal and a 2 hour nap and then he was off to fight fire again during the evening. Heat makes a fire almost impossible to fight, so during the middle of the day when the fire is raging and it’s close to 100 degrees outside usually the ranchers just have to sit back an allow it to burn, because there’s almost nothing you can physically do to stop a fire in those conditions.

hazy skies because of the fire.
hazy skies because of the fire.

Fire slowly being contained

The ranchers are trained in fighting fires and know how and when are the best times to attack and when to sit back and allow nature to take it’s course. Typically if the ranchers can’t be on the actual fire line (where the fire is actually present and moving) they might be a couple hundred yards to a mile ahead of the fire making a fire break (it’s a large line plowed by a Caterpillar  to make it difficult for the fire to pass) or they might be back-firing, which is when they start fires (usually starting at the fire break) and allow the brush to burn back towards to the fire consuming the possible fuel for the fire that is approaching. Ranchers also have equipment to fight the fires such as shovels (seems old-fashioned, but they still work great), spray packs (can be worn on their back and has a sprayer that they can use), sprayers on ATV’s (this is the most used piece of equipment for those directly fighting the fire), pumper rigs (trucks with massive tanks on them), drip torches (for starting fires) and Caterpillars for making fire breaks.

Our neighbor running a CAT making a fire break
A pumper truck on the edge of the fire break
Burning through the nights
Burning through the nights

All these tactics and patience and lots of prayer eventually paid off. On July 2nd the fire was still burning pretty steadily, but that evening there were some spotty rain showers that helped slow the fire some and allow the ranchers to actually get ahead of the fire. July 3rd the fire was becoming well contained and the BLM was now fully on the fire and making their way around “containing it” completely. This allowed several of the ranchers to finally go home and get some much needed rest. The ranchers always leave one of the neighbors to watch the fire in case it gets out of control again until there is absolutely no hot spots or any way for the fire to continue moving forward. On July 4th Sean celebrated by spending the day out at the fire in his pickup with some friends watching an area that had a little bit of life left to possibly ignite, but by the end of the day he was able to officially call the fire quenched.

This fire ended up consuming 46,500 acres of federal land. We were fortunate that it did not burn too much of the federal land that we lease, thus allowing us to continue to run cattle on it next year (not on the burned section). Fires are a very scary reality of living in the west and we consider ourselves “lucky” because the brush that burns is nothing like the trees that burn in forest fires, so we are thankful for living on the desert. This is one natural disaster that you don’t want to be unprepared for and thankfully there are better tools, equipment, and practices that significantly help with fighting fires compared to the past.

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