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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Could cows help fight western wildfires?

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column for The Spokesman-Review.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column for The Spokesman-Review. (JESSE TINSLEY)

We need a new mascot for the 2020 Labor Day fires. Not little Smokey Bear warning “only you can prevent forest fires.”

How about a cow?

The big burns of this September have been primarily in rangeland. When grasslands and sagebrush burn, it can be as explosive as a forest fire. Gov. Jay Inslee claimed in his Sept. 15 wildfire press briefing “there’s really no management you can do over tens of thousands of acres of grass and sagebrush. You just can’t get out your lawn mower and mow that grass,” Inslee said. He blamed climate change. “The solution is to prevent that grass from becoming like gasoline – the aridity dries it out and it becomes explosive.”

Livestock producers listening to the livestream collectively groaned on social media. “Living in and representing areas that are high-risk for fire, I don’t have 80 years to change the climate a degree or two, we need results now,” said Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda. “We have all kinds of treatments in our forests that can have results. And it’s the same with the grasslands.”

That’s where cattle come in. Self-propelled, bio-fueled mowers are a solution in both forests and rangeland. Or maybe you’d rather have a cute lamb as the mascot for grazing as a tool for fire mitigation. Large flocks used to roam fields and forests in Washington, particularly useful in removing vegetation from the forest floor.

In the teeth of the unusually heavy winds on Labor Day, no logging or grazing would stop fire. Dr. Crystal Raymond, Climate Adaptation Specialist at Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, said the link between climate change and wind is unclear, but good management practices can reduce the climate impact. “Doing something that will reduce fuel buildup will make a difference,” Raymond said.

Mitigating wildfire spread is the most direct way to reduce Washington’s carbon footprint. A 2015 legislative report says wildfire represents from 13% to 50% of Washington’s total carbon emissions per year, depending on fire activity.

Carbon critic or not, everyone was miserable after a week of smoky skies. The 2020 Labor Day wildfires were nowhere near the scale of the 1910 Big Burn, generating smoke for weeks, blackening skies from Denver to Saskatchewan and reaching the East Coast. The Big Burn shaped U.S. attitudes toward forest fire suppression for generations. It took decades of scientific inquiry before rediscovering the role fire plays in a healthy forest. And there are still those who see all proposed logging as a mindless attempt to hammer the forest.

Reducing ladder fuels using mechanical methods or grazing is a best practice for firewise forest landscapes. We’re continuing to learn about application to rangelands. In a 2016 issue of The International Journal of Wildland Fire, a study of winter grazing as treatment for fuel management concluded it “can be applied across vast shrub-grasslands to decrease wildfire risk and fire intensity to mediate climate change effects on wildfire activity.”

Intensively managing millions of acres is unrealistic, but targeted treatment works. Kretz has seen coordinated forest management between different agencies and multiple private owners be effective in Okanogan County, creating corridors of defensible space for crews and equipment. It’s a safer alternative for firefighters and the environment than blasting a bulldozer line in the face of wind-driven flames.

“We have conceded huge swaths of forest between big rivers and highways when we need to concentrate on creating corridors of protection,” Kretz said.

Fighting wildfire safely is a concern for Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. She supports the concept of pre-planned firebreaks maintained by thinning and grazing.

“We are working on scheduling a meeting at the end of October to better understand the challenges of managing fire on rangeland and ag lands,” Franz said.

Researchers with the University of California Cooperative Extension dug into the link between cows and fire in California, affirming the positive impact of grazing to reduce fuel load and make fire suppression safer. When cows eat the grass before it dries out, the flame front stays lower, and the carbon goes back into the soil instead of into the air.

Climate is changing. Successful climate adaptation means the management of our forests and rangelands must follow the science.

The phrase “log it, graze it or watch it burn” applies.

Sue Lani Madsen can be reached at

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