For decades, the crisp air, natural water sources and abundant vegetation of Stanislaus National Forest have served as idyllic grazing land for grass-fed cattle in the summer months.
About 4,000 cows were ranging there when the Rim Fire ignited Aug. 17. Now, as the fire continues to spread over more than 200,000 acres, ranch hands are scrambling to find what’s left of their herds – dead, wounded or unscathed.
With large numbers believed to be dead, and the near future of grazing in the forest up in the air, the cattle industry is another victim of the massive blaze on the west edge of Yosemite.
“They go out every day, gathering the cows they can find, the ones that have made it into the green areas,” said Susan Forbes, a national forest staffer. “They’re finding pockets of livestock and concentrating on removing them as fast as they can.”
When the fire struck, many ranches located nearby were able to evacuate, often with the help of volunteers offering trucks, trailers and temporary land for displaced animals.
But for those with permits to bring cattle into the national forest, moving them is laborious and time-consuming. The cattle are scattered over thousands of acres.
Few ranchers had enough warning – or resources – to get up to the mountains and move livestock. Forbes said 12 of 36 grazing areas in the park were affected.
Little time to react
While some owners had time, she said, “This fire really raged up quickly. Some didn’t have as much time.”
“We put bells on our cows so we can hear them, and they’re mostly creatures of habit, so we know where to find them,” Gaiser said. “But the 240 animals that I take to the mountains, it takes me three weeks to get 90 percent of them and another three weeks to get the other 10 percent.
“I don’t think the forest service expected the fire would do what it did in those few hours,” he said. “There was just no way for them to gather those cows in that time.”
Gaiser, who blames the swift spread of the fire on a lack of federal funding for forest thinning, said local ranchers are now facing some tough decisions for the future.
They have to deal with financial losses – a cow can be worth more than $ 1,000 – and find feed for surviving animals, some which are wounded.
There’s also the chance they won’t be able to return their cattle to the damaged lands next summer, a practice that some ranching families have relied on for generations.
“It’s bad, and we’re worried long term,” said Gaiser, who is among those offering space at his ranch for injured cattle. “You talk to people who have gone through fires in other parts of the state and they go through the same thing. It’s just our year, I guess.”
Federal authorities won’t have an exact count of how much livestock was lost until the fire is under control, said Paul Lehman, a U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman. That may take three to four weeks.
The Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency may be able to provide some relief to ranchers who lost cattle, in the form of loans and restoration of damaged lands, Lehman said.
Many residents living in the rural communities affected by the blaze own other farm animals. Some have relied of the kindness of neighbors.
Teri Elam, Tuolumne County’s supervising animal control officer, said the agency has been inundated with people volunteering to transport or house horses, pigs, chickens and just about anything else.
“I have never seen anything like this,” she said. “It’s awesome.”
Melanie Hurst, 24, whose family runs Hurst Ranch in nearby Jamestown, was one of those volunteers.
A few days after the fire started, she went to the petting zoo at Yosemite Pines RV Resort in Groveland with her truck and trailer to help move two miniature donkeys, two alpacas, six goats, a sheep and 10 chickens into a facility offering space.
“Animals are a part of our lifestyle here,” Hurst said. “We just wanted to make sure that the owners were at ease knowing they could evacuate and their animals were safe.”
Rim Fire updates
The Rim Fire continued growing overnight Saturday and on Sunday, moving it up a spot to become the fourth largest wildfire in California history. But the pace has slowed considerably. Details from Cal Fire as of Sunday afternoon:
– 222,777 acres (348 square miles) burned
– 40 percent contained – up from 35 percent on Saturday
– About 8 percent, or 94 square miles, of Yosemite National Park has burned
– 111 structures destroyed – 11 residences, 97 outbuildings and three commercial buildings
– No deaths
– More than 5,000 firefighters still deployed