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A burned-out logging road winds into the Colville National Forest near Frog Spring and Danville, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Ranchers face loss of livestock, livelihoods in Washington fires

| By Erica Curless

DANVILLE, Wash. – The burned carcasses blend into the scorched landscape, just more black and ash among the haunting outline of trees. “There she is,” rancher Doug Grumbach says, pointing up the steep slope near his ranch. “It looks like she was trying to run and froze in that mode.”

The cow is now obvious: A perfectly shaped head, a body covered in skin that’s become cured leather – taut and solid like a drumhead. She’s upright, wedged between two burned trees, ribs exposed, a flurry of maggots working furiously. Her calf lies in a heap nearby.

Grumbach is silent. He rubs his jaw and points to another carcass farther up the hill on the grazing land in the Colville National Forest, just south of the Canadian border. The land recently burned in the Stickpin fire.

Grumbach, like cattle ranchers across fire-ravaged north-central Washington, isn’t sure of his total losses. The devastation includes not only body counts but hundreds of miles of fence, grazing land and water sources on his family’s fourth-generation ranch. So far, he knows of eight dead cows and four calves, a loss of about $35,000. Thirty more of his Angus herd is missing. In his corrals at home are a cow and several calves with burned hooves.

Livestock toll still ‘a wild guess’

For some ranchers, this is the second year of hardship – first stemming from drought and now another round of deadly fire.

Chris Bieker, of the federal Farm Service Agency in Spokane, doesn’t know how many cattle died in the fires. There are places livestock owners haven’t been able to get into because of fire and road closures.

“At this point, anything is just a wild guess,” he said.

That’s especially true about the numerous ranches located in the Okanogan Complex of fires in north-central Washington. Together, the Okanogan Complex has burned about 475 square miles and is considered the largest wildfire in state history.

Cattle production is Washington’s fifth-largest commodity with about 1.1 million cows and calves valued at $706 million in 2013, according to the Washington state Department of Agriculture. Behind wheat, hay is the state’s second-most-productive field crop.

Bieker said the Farm Service Agency still is trying to process payments for lost livestock from last year’s brutal Carlton Complex fires in the Methow Valley, which was until this year the largest wildfire recorded in Washington. More than 1,000 cattle burned along with 500 miles of fencing. Some fear this year’s losses are worse.

Bieker added that it’s important for ranchers to report their losses within 30 days, under the federal Livestock Indemnity Program – an often difficult task when they still are digging fire lines and trying to rescue cows. That program, part of the 2014 Farm Bill, allows cattle owners and others to recoup 75 percent of the market value of livestock that died because of “adverse weather.”

(A burned-out logging road winds into the Colville National Forest near Frog Spring and Danville, Wash. Photo: Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

People across the state are collecting donations of money and hay to help the ranchers, who are rounding up cattle out of the burning forests and rangelands. When they find their livestock, the cows often have burned hooves and udders, and respiratory problems.

Grumbach used four-wheelers and horses to get some of his cattle. The ground was still hot from smoldering underground stumps and roots, and it singed the hair on his saddle horses’ legs.

He called Twisp rancher Vic Stokes, past president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, for advice on how to doctor the burned and sick cows.

Stokes lost about 230 cattle in the Carlton Complex last year, 60 percent of his herd. But the bigger loss was the generations of finely tuned genetics that helped produce the most-efficient cattle for his land – those with the right bone and muscle structure and birthing ability. Hardy cows that can live on the rugged hills and care for their babies.

“Our cattle are an extension of who we are,” Stokes said. “It’s confusing to somebody in downtown Seattle who thinks we’re just putting a hamburger on the plate. The genetic decisions my dad made goes back to 1940.”

(A bird flies through burned-out trees on Wednesday in the Colville National Forest near Danville, Wash. Photo: Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

He said rebuilding his herd and replacing hundreds of miles of fence will take years. It may take three years to heal the grasslands. The drought doesn’t help. Neither did the floods and landslides last fall, the product of heavy rain hitting the fire-scarred land. Stokes had to tediously remove 2,000 cubic yards of mud and debris from his fields.

Losses in Idaho, too

Wildfire also has significantly impacted livestock in Idaho, where there are more cattle than people.

Mark Samson, state executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Idaho, said he and his staff still are gathering reports on livestock losses in the Soda fire southwest of Boise and the Clearwater Complex fire around Kamiah.

In 2012, there were more than 2 million head of cattle and calves, with a value of $2.7 billion, according to the Idaho Beef Council.

Thousands of head of cattle are grazed in the Soda fire area. During the fire, cattle were moved to a single location and have not been separated for a count by each producer.

However, one producer there lost as many as 50 head, Samson said, and 20 or more producers are affected by that fire. At least 27 wild horses died when they were caught in the Soda fire, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Samson said he will soon visit with producers affected by the Clearwater Complex to learn about any losses.

So far, it appears the confirmed losses involve burned pasture and forage, he said.

Hay, feed donations rolling in

Semitruck loads of hay donations are rolling into Okanogan, some going directly to ranchers who need to feed cattle they saved from the fires.

The Washington State University Extension Office for Spokane County, along with Greater Spokane Emergency Management and the American Red Cross, helped collect hay and feed donations Friday to distribute in Tonasket. Besides losing pasture, many of the ranchers lost hundreds of tons of haystacks. In some areas, there were already hay and pasture shortages because of drought.

Laurie and Monte Andrews, who run a feed and farm supply store that delivers to all the areas affected by fires in north-central Washington, are coordinating hay and money donations.

Laurie Andrews of Ag Tech LLC said social media is a blessing. Her phone rings from 6 a.m. to late at night. Besides donations, the couple are keeping some evacuated livestock on their property just north of the Okanogan County Fairgrounds. Some people have had to evacuate several times.

In Ferry County, the handful of people who evacuated horses, cows, pigs, chickens and rabbits to the fairgrounds must relocate – again. The North Star fire south of town is too close, about 3 miles as of Saturday afternoon.

The Ferry County Sheriff’s Office is recommending that livestock relocate to the Colville fairgrounds. People in Republic, where firefighters outnumber residents, are anxious. Many people are wearing face masks. Rumors are rampant.

“It looks like a bad war movie set,” said Jake Avenson, who was helping people with livestock at the fairgrounds.

(Cherie Gorton, of Rural Resources in stands with elderly brothers, from left, Gary, Paul and Dennis Sorbo who refused to evacuate their low income senior housing apartment on Thursday, Aug 27, 2015, in Republic, Wash. Their sister, Mary, chose to evacuate and left the trio behind to head to a Red Cross Shelter and Grace Evangelical Church in Colville, Wash. Photo: Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Leslie Young lives in Republic but evacuated three horses to the fairgrounds and was uneasy about the news of having to relocate.

“I’ve been sick to my stomach about this for a week,” she said, while feeding hay to her favorite paint horse, Gracie, Thursday evening.

Then, like many locals, she took a big breath of smoky air and turned positive.

“We’re going to get through this. Everyone pulls together in this town.”

Lead photo credit: A burned-out logging road winds into the Colville National Forest near Frog Spring and Danville, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland)