FIRE & BRIMSTONE

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Fire can obliterate, demolish, eradicate and more. Fire can take or sustain life. The ancient Gods of Fire symbolized destruction, hell and damnation, but also the warming of the hearth and forging of a plow. The forge could prepare us for war or domestication. The same dichotomy comes with the tools identified and used by Holistic Management practitioners. Each-and-every tool can be used to move us toward our desired future resource base or away. The same tool can be good and bad. Fire’s broad swath of destruction will continue sucking money from our forest, our ranch, and our public coffers, until we empower resource managers at the soil surface to log and graze sensibly.

 UP IN SMOKE

Many have seen and know the destruction grazing and animal impact can bring. The tools of rest and living organisms are viewed as neutral but can be just as damaging. Most are in love with the tool of technology and use excessively, bringing unintended consequences. Everyone knows and understands that fire’s sword comes with a double edge. Unmanaged rest of forest and pasture stoke a tinder box. Untethered development bares an underbelly of naïveté, as family’s homes and dreams incinerate. Fire eats grass that could fatten livestock and shelter wildlife. Fire fells timber that could grow lumber. Fire burns cash money fighting fire! Who knows what type of health issues that smoke laden breezes leave behind. This downward spiral feedback loop, paralyzes resource managers and tax payers, as we sit and watch our profits go up in smoke.

 THE NEW NORMAL

How much country has burned? A lot, 71,499 wildfires charred ten million acres in 2017 and kindled 10,000 homes. Fighting fire cost taxpayers $2 billion. Wow! 

 Global warming and trends offer no relief. The most terrifying metric?  People just buy it. Jennifer Balch of Penn State University points out that frequency of wildfires has increased at least four-fold since the 1970s, and taxpayers just consider it the “New Normal.” We can do better.

HEADLINE: ‘‘The New Normal’: Wildfires Roar Across the West, Again. The title suggests acceptance. Complacency. We should be asking a very simple question, “What is the root cause of the growing trend in fire?” 

 Doing Better

Motivation. Spending $2 billion per year for fire suppression should be motivation enough to reconsider how we do things. Ten thousand homes a year turns equity, hopes, dreams, and security into ashes. If that’s not enough, what about the value of timber and grass?

 I haven’t found any numbers but ten million acres at $0.80 per stock day of grazing, most likely exceeds $160 million per year. That moola could pay $50,000 annual income to 3,200 range managers. Thirty-two hundred range managers could take care of 10 to 20 times the ten million acres burned and turn cash loss to GDP gain. 

 For discussion purposes, let’s say an acre of timber is worth $1,800, which would be $4.5 billion, if only one-quarter of the burned acres were timber. Add in at least $2 billion for the homes and we’re talking serious loss.

 Fire on the Mountain

We were having our July 4, Interdependence Day party on Twin Creek, when a small, dry cloud sauntered across the sky and sent one, lone lightning bolt to start a fire on Sheep Mountain. As the smoke began to boil and bulge into the sky, the band at our party began singing “Fire on the Mountain.” I wasn’t worried.

 The fire crews came roaring out and stopped for directions. I explained that the country was rough and they should sit down and join our party. If the fire comes down the mountain, just wait until it gets to the county road and put it out. If the fire goes south, it will hit a pasture we had already grazed and most likely couldn’t carry a fire. If it goes east, it hits a rock wall and won’t be able to climb into Hall Creek.

 He looked nervous, saying, “Well, I wish I could stay but we need to get up there.”

 They drove up the mountain, parked their firetruck and walked to the rise to see what was going on. The fire swarmed over the hill and consumed their firetruck. Seriously.

 The BLM set up a fire base right south of our house. Lots of people, trucks, tents, and activity. The beavers had built a dam right behind our house and they used that for scooping water with a helicopter dousing flames. The base camp operated for several days, planes dropping retardant, the helicopter scooping water from the beaver dam, trucks driving around and men hacking through the brush. 

 The fire never made it to the county road. It burned south until it hit the pasture we grazed and then burned out. It went over the mountain east but it didn’t get over the rock wall. Much ado about nothing. And a lot of expense. My brother-in-law says, “Do gooders out doing no good.”

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Grazing Firebreaks

Donny Benz, with Goat Green, LLC uses a herd of 1,500 goats to graze for weed control and fire abatement in several different western states. In recent drought years, fire fuel load mitigation contracts have provided nearly 35% of the herds annual work load. Home Owners Associations (HOA), federal and state agencies, fire districts and individual property owners hire the goats to browse trees, shrubs, brush and understory vegetation to create a fire break with a browse line as high as 8 feet tall.  He says that if you graze the understory of a forest, fire behaves differently and allows firefighters much needed time to get ahead of a wildfire.

Donny explains, “It is easier and more cost effective to prevent wildfire rather than fight it. A client last year spent $80,000 for 5 days of manual labor using chain saws and heavy machinery. I charged them $7,000 for 3 days, used 500 goats, covered 3 times the amount of acreage, and recycled all vegetation in situ to help with soil quality and bank stabilization.” 

It appears that paying for grazing costs less, even if we aren’t producing meat but simply mitigating fire. Donny continues, “Most clients don't call until they are scared and the fire has already started...seems to be a common human tendency, wait until you're scared or it's too late.”  

Some Home Owners Associations are taking the initiative to plan for fire control. This gives them discounts from insurance companies. Public policy needs to be more aggressive in demanding citizens building high-end homes and subdivisions nestled in forest to be more accountable. It's like adding fuel to the fire....and then they expect fire fighters and tax dollars to save their home. 

Donny says, “It seems to me that everything (population, natural resources, wildlife, economy, real estate) is out of balance and we are (over)do for a reset.” http://goatseatweeds.com

Dick Richardson, who trained Andrea and me as a Certified Educator for Holistic Management International, used Holistic Planned Grazing to create fire breaks for his ranch in South Africa. How elegant. Focus on the positive and make money while building safety. 

It seems so difficult to see the obvious. Why not allocate funds spent for fighting fire to prevent fire? Why not add tons of beef, lamb, or goat to our Gross Domestic Product as we build fire breaks and improve soil health? Why not invest in pre-commercial thinning and grazing understory of forests to grow timber? What would it take? Dick Richardson would say, “Planning.”

U.S. News and World Report. Data: National Interagency Fire Center, Gabrielle Levy for USN&WR

U.S. News and World Report. Data: National Interagency Fire Center, Gabrielle Levy for USN&WR

Root Causes

Think of it as shrinking the Gross Domestic Product by more than $6 billion and taxing the economy $2 billion for a loss of $8 billion.

Doesn’t it make sense to take half of the $2 billion fire suppression budget and hire goat herders, loggers and cattle herders to put several billion into the plus side of the ledger?

It reminds me of weeds. Weed district supervisors cry out for the fight against weeds, as their budgets and acres sprayed continue to escalate. People are distracted by stopping seed production rather than eliminating the habitat for weed germination, often as simple as bare ground. Seeds remain viable in the soil for many years and decades in some cases. Complexity will self-organize a plant community depending on disturbance. Weeds are a step in that process. Building more plant diversity leaves less space for weeds.

Overrested range and timber provide habitat for fire. It doesn’t matter if it’s from a neglected campfire, an arsonist, or lightning strike, fuel will burn.  Grazed understory and vegetative range are less likely to burn. Addressing the root cause of the problem means investing in the empowerment of the grazier and logger.

If we keep on doing what we’ve always done, we keep on getting what we’ve always got. Bottom line, we are mismanaging resources.

Blood Red Moon

I grew up in Nebraska’s Sandhills. Great production and lightning storms brought the ever-present danger of wildfire. When I was about 8 years old, there was a perfect storm. We had a highly productive summer and a lightning storm. We were heading home from the hayfield when the first smoke drifted up from the southeast. We already had our gunny sacks and shovels on board so my dad headed SE to see if we could help.

As lighting licked the horizon, fire after fire were ignited. We met up with some neighbors and dad asked Dale Piper if he would take me to his home, seeing that it was going to be a long night.

Dale dropped me off, at his home before he headed back out to join the fire line. His wife, Jerri, put me to bed. I remember seeing flames glistening through the window and the full moon was as red as blood. I remembered our mother reading Revelations, from the bible. 

“I watched as the Lamb broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake. The sun became as dark as black cloth, and the moon became as red as blood.”

 I thought the world must be coming to an end. With the combination of mismanaged resources, untethered development, and climate change, the world very well could be coming to an end.

Generate Wealth

Complacency that allows for terms like, “The New Normal,” puts Human Creativity in neutral. Rather than question root causes and run away expenses we justify our present state. Rather than lose the value of grass and timber, as we budget lavishly for fire-fighting let’s mobilize human creativity to build wealth.

Cheatgrass (Downy Brome) provides a death spiral by burning every year and creating habitat for more cheatgrass. Yet, this plant can be grazed in the spring, recycle plant material and build germination sites for perennial grasses. 

Climate change can be mitigated with proper grazing management to sequester carbon. Many Holistic Management practitioners have demonstrated the ability to increase soil organic matter by 2-3% in 3-5 years of properly managed grazing.

We often overlook simplicity as we seek drama. Investing in people managing resources at the soil surface brings elegance to each specific situation. Rather than fund runaway budgets fighting what we don’t want, invest to empower decisions at the soil surface.

 



Tony Malmberg4 Comments