Wildfires Burn Ranches and Threaten Grass-Fed Beef

| 12/12/2012 4:41:54 PM

This article is posted with permission from Grist.org 

“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, where he raises grass-fed beef. 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.”Gradd-fed beef 

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.

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.

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