The Bear Fire

From “I cry for the mountains and the legacy lost: The Bear Fire” By Dave Daley, Butte County Rancher & CCA Immediate Past President:

I cry for the forest, the trees and streams, and the horrible deaths suffered by the wildlife and our cattle. The suffering was unimaginable. When you find groups of cows and their baby calves tumbled in a ravine trying to escape, burned almost beyond recognition, you try not to wretch. You only pray death was swift. A fawn and small calf side by side as if hoping to protect one another. Worse, in searing memory, cows with their hooves, udder and even legs burned off who had to be euthanized.

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I grew up hearing the stories from my Dad and Grandad of the “last man out” lighting the forest floor to burn the low undergrowth. Their generations knew to reduce the ladder fuels that spread the fire to the canopy, to open it up for the wildlife. It was a pact between our friends the Native Americans who had managed it this way for 13,000 years, the loggers, miners and ranchers. They knew ecology and botany and wildlife. They worked together because they loved and knew the land.

It was the early 1960s and snow was already on the ground in December on our foothill ranch. I would have been about four and holding my Grandfather’s hand as he lit some piles of brush on fire to open the landscape. It was the practice he had learned from generations before. And the CDF (now Cal Fire) crew showed up, put out the fire, and lectured him for burning. My Grandad was the kindest, gentlest and funniest man I have ever known. And he was mad. It was the beginning of the end for our forest home. And it has proceeded at an unprecedented rate.

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Look at the mega-fires California has experienced in recent years. If you study them closely, almost all of them start on State or Federally owned land. Fifty percent of California is owned by the feds or state, land that has unmanaged fuel loads because of the restrictions to do anything on the land. Right now, the only buffer to these disasters are private, well managed, grazed landscapes. They may still burn, but the fires are not as catastrophic and can be controlled.

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Even with the dead cattle on Hartman Ridge that we found, why did we find over half alive here and nowhere else? If anything, I assumed this steep ridge gave them no chance at all. And I realized that there had been a much smaller fire here about five years ago. The country was more open and the fire moved quickly. Less fuel and more things lived. Trees, wildlife, and cows.

I observed the same phenomenon in the remnants of the town of Feather Falls—where only a school and cemetery remain. The school had over 80 students less than 50 years ago, until the lumber mill closed and the village died. The school was destroyed by fire. The cemetery, however, still stands with green stately pines respecting the graves of mostly Native American veterans with flags at each grave. The cemetery was maintained free of deadfall and litter by family members. All the trees lived.

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This is devastating emotionally and financially. And I am not sure of the next steps. I do know this: We must change our land management practices if we expect the West to survive. It is best done locally, not from DC or Sacramento, but I have tilted at windmills before.