While humans were able to drive themselves away from the oncoming Elephant Hill fire, cattle were not.
Across the Cariboo-Chilcotin this summer, ranchers have stayed behind, working against the clock to find their cattle before, during and after wildfires sweep through their range land.
For the past two weeks rancher Gus Horn has been on the range, working with fellow rancher and friend, Ron Eden, to move Eden’s cattle away from the oncoming fire.
He’s seen corrals and fences burned because of slow moving fire and spoken to many who’ve been in the way when fire has moved quickly and, in the words of one equipment operator, where “cows exploded like popcorn.”
“What I’ve seen burn is there is nothing that won’t burn,” says Horn.
“Clearcuts that are five or ten years old will burn; they’ll burn slower because there’s less fuel. Fresh clearcuts that were done last winter; they burned really hot because there is so much dry matter and little green. For the most part, willows and aspen slows it right down. I’ve seen wetland meadows that are fine and I’ve seen wetland meadows that are burnt from one side to the other because there is so much old dry matter that is there.”
The ranchers were part of a group spread over Eden’s range, which stretches directly in the fire’s path from Jack Frost Lake to North Bonaparte Road south of Green Lake. All were working to move cattle before the fire reached them, or failing that, once the fire had passed through.
The ranchers were allowed past the checkpoints thanks to help from the BC Cattlemen’s Association.
“The BC Cattlemen’s Association has done an amazing job of negotiation and navigating bureaucracy with government to be sure that we’ve got permits to go in there,” says Horn.
The ranchers rode through fire-hit territory on horses, looking through meadows or at water holes for the cattle.
“You just go out here day after day. You look for tracks. We’ve gotten great tips from the people that we’ve spoken with and given our phone number to,” says Horn.
“Even if you get five [or] two head at a time, and if you’re lucky on a good day you’ll get 12 head,” he says. “We counted into the corrals yesterday and we were maybe like two or three head short, so the importance of being allowed out there because you don’t know when things are going to blow up worse than they are.”
The horsemen round the cattle to corrals, both already in place or temporary ones where they try to get them loaded onto a truck and out of the fire zone as soon as possible.
“It adds up. You think you’ve spend all day and you only got five head — well, it was better than none. If you get five head for ten days you’ve got 50 head. A life is a life.”
For his part, Horn says he has yet to encounter any animals hurt by the fire, because it moved slowly enough for the animals to move out of the way where he’s been looking, but says others have found dead or injured cows elsewhere.
Generally, he says the animals, once found, are easy to move, preferring to move homeward in smaller groups.
The group has also tried to stay aware of their own safety.
“Ron has a falling certificate and he’s got a danger tree assessment certificate. Our safety meeting is going on there and don’t be idiots. You listen, you look around and you be quick. You don’t linger and you park in a safe place where you are going to come back, rather than smouldering ruins,” Horn says.
“You keep your wits about you.”
For the most part, the officials and people the group has encountered on the local level have been helpful, pointing them in the direction of animals, or sharing their own stories from the front lines.
“To a person, everybody that we’ve met, with one exception, has been as gracious as you’d expect them to be under the circumstances,” says Horn.
He says the help from the local range office has been available and accommodating, keeping the ranchers in the loop, and the importance of being allowed into the fire zone has been instrumental in protecting the animals.
When they’ve encountered resistance to their presence, it’s just wasted time, says Horn.
Still, Horn has questions from what he’s seen.
“There should be a transparent review of what the wildfire policies are,” he says.
While most of the contract crews he’s met on the fire line have been local, he also says that local knowledge should be prioritized when it comes to fighting fires.
“I think there needs to be a clear understanding for communities anywhere what wildfire management really means and how and when resources are spent and allocated and where.”
He also points to forest management before any of the fires even started, questioning whether forestry management practices have been effective in preventing fires from getting this big.
He’s watched flames, that he thinks could have been easily stopped ,take out Eden’s corrals or vital fencing that separates range land.
“People are going to be cleaning up this mess until Christmas,” he says.
He says the Cattleman’s Association has already done a good job of having both federal and provincial governments step up to the plate in providing assistance to ranchers, but he anticipates challenges ahead in how resources may be allocated.
For ranchers, he points to the loss of infrastructure as huge as well as the loss of grass in the short term.
While it is already coming back in some areas, he guesses that Eden has lost a significant chunk of his fall grazing area for this year.
As for cattle, he says it’s looking relatively good, “because we were allowed to get in there and do something.”
It’s just luck that it’s not his range facing the fire, Horn says, adding that it very well could be that situation next year.
He just hopes that the fire doesn’t kick back up again should the weather turn warm again before winter.
“In the meantime, we’re still there having to work in a landscape that is different than it was. Someways it’s better, but someway’s it’s worse.”