Reflections on a tragedy…

By Dave Daley, Butte County Rancher & CCA Past President
Follow up to “I cry for the mountains and the legacy lost | The Bear Fire” from Sept. 2020 and Requiem for a Forest from April 2021

Rancher observing damage to land, cattle and legacy post fire.It was a year ago this week. The anguish of the monster North Complex wildfire. Devastation that killed a forest, killed a watershed, killed the wildlife as they fled on fire, killed an entire ecosystem, and killed 12 people. It destroyed the town of Berry Creek, destroyed some of the most beautiful habitat in the United States including burning through the spectacular Feather Falls scenic area. Our cow herd and their baby calves, killed. Burnt alive in tragic and unimaginable terror. It will haunt me forever. My family history spanning six generations of taking cows to the mountains above Lake Oroville in the Plumas National Forest, from the 1800s to 2020, destroyed. Gone in a fleeting 24 hours that burned 200,000 acres with devastating winds, tinder dry fuels and no way to stop it. The solution to avoid this catastrophe was forgotten decades ago from misguided management. Well intentioned, bad ideas that were implemented without ever asking the locals who have deep connections to place and an understanding of what may be needed. Policies were developed by those who don’t live here and don’t know the land. “Let’s protect the land by stopping active forestry, prescribed fire, and grazing.” Good job. Look where it has gotten us. Misplaced knowledge, inappropriately and broadly applied across different ecosystems, coupled with a smattering of arrogance and ignorance by those who “know better.”

The crisis we have all helped to create puts so many of us in danger, especially those on the front line. Yet despite the danger, the first responders always show up. My thanks, and deep gratitude to all those in the way of this beast and the other fires you now face.

Some of you have heard the story, so I will spare the details, but until you have experienced devastation of this magnitude up close and personal, I would ask you to be thoughtful and not be quick to offer advice. Please, ask those of us who are part of the forest and have seen the devil in person – a fire of such scope that it is truly hard to fathom. No tragedy is ever the same. I empathize with those who have dealt with fires in different ecosystems, or floods, blizzards, or hurricanes. Each situation is difficult, unique, and personal. The tragedy is what binds, but don’t make assumptions and offer solutions. Your understanding and support are enough.

Almost a year to this day the Bear Fire (one of 21 lightning-sparked fires which formed the North  Complex Fire) tore through our mountain range where we have trailed cattle for 150 years. The unstoppable monster ate everything. Everything. There was no stopping it. Cows and calves killed side by side with bear and deer, all hunting for water, dying horrible deaths with no oxygen as the fire sucked it away. Those who died quickly were the lucky ones. Others couldn’t escape – in slow torture, with burnt hooves, eyes, hides, lungs – some with their legs burnt off but still breathing. And we just hoped we could find them to end their suffering rather than know the pain of dying over days and weeks. Their pain never leaves until their last breath. Our pain never leaves.

Resilient RanchersWe spent the longest month of my life searching for survivors. Sixteen-to-twenty-hour days and little sleep in between as the scenes you witnessed kept flashing before your eyes. We couldn’t have done it without that bond of family and friendship. To find a calf two weeks after the fire that could barely stand, with eyes gone and hooves gone is an image you can’t forget. The agony, for the animal and the people, will never fade.

We couldn’t take cows to the mountains this year. That hurt. It was a hard decision personally, even though the Forest Service and Sierra Pacific, the private timber company we lease from, were supportive. There was nothing for the cattle to return to. My Mom couldn’t go. At 90 years of age, it is the first year she hasn’t gone since 1948 when she married my dad and it began the cycle of cows, kids, family, the mountains and back to the foothills. I hated losing that chance for her. I find it amusing at how easily we bandy the term “resilient.” Look to her or people like her and you will find the true definition.

Each ecosystem is different. Some will recover quickly, and some may never be the same. Rainfall, topography, tree and plant species, soil type, restoration efforts, and more. You don’t replace 100 to 150-year-old trees. Not in my lifetime. Not in my one-year-old granddaughters’ (Juni’s) lifetime. I hate it.

I force myself to go to the fire scar about every two or three weeks. Each time leaves me with an ache in the pit of my stomach. When I don’t go for a few weeks, the hurt fades. The trip picks at a healing scab, and sometimes draws blood. In time, I hope the scab will fade to a scar, but it will never leave.

This is the time of year when cows would just begin to calve, and we would make plans for the fall gather. Placing salt and mineral strategically, working on the “catch pens” (those contraptions weren’t good enough to deserve to be called a corral!) and assessing the conditions of the land. On a crisp late summer day, you could start to feel the hint of fall in your bones. You always hoped for a summer thunder shower (without lightning!) to freshen the grass and browse and settle dust.

You can see the active logging of Sierra Pacific, removing the dead trees as quickly as they can. Hundreds of loads of logs are moved each day. It is hard to look at the land without the majestic conifers, but it is clearly the right thing to do. Sierra Pacific has already started to replant. Maybe Juni’s granddaughters will see the land as I knew it? I can only hope.

So far, I see no activity on any National Forest land. I know that they are trying to move forward with salvage logging projects in the fire scar and may be close to success. I don’t fault the local USFS personnel, but the bureaucracy moves like a tortoise. A very slow tortoise. The regulatory hurdles, coupled with the threats of legal action from extremists, paralyze progress. The sheer scope of rules and regulations and dotted i’s and crossed t’s are incredible. I feel sorry for those who want to act within the agency. We will wait and watch all those massive dead giants fall in a raging north wind this autumn, setting up another frightening fuel load. I try not to be angry, but it is so maddening I am not sure I can give voice to my frustration.

And these fires are clearly not just about me. This year we have the Dixie Fire, the Beckwourth Complex, the Caldor Fire…and so many more, and we aren’t even to the typical fire season! I watch and hurt for the town of Greenville. For so many who lost their homes, their livelihoods or even their lives. If you have never driven the Feather River Canyon on State Route 70, you missed an amazing scenic world that can’t be described. It is burnt from one end to the other.

When do the state and the federal governments actually do more than talk about the issue? I have been encouraged with my discussions in both Sacramento and Washington, DC on both sides of the aisle. I hear the right people saying the right thing, which is a major step. Thank you. But quit talking and do something. Put resources to bear where we can see change. I am waiting for a politician or a bureaucrat to have the guts to just DO SOMETHING besides talk, regardless of party. We don’t need another damn study or debate or an expensive think tank. Ask the locals about Cattle heard devastated by the Bear Firecontrolling fuel loads. Now. Not next year. And for those of you who want to make this political or a “California” issue only, you are mistaken. Most of these mega fires occur on National Forest (federal land) regardless of the right or left ideology of the Administration and Congress. This shouldn’t be that hard. Where are the grants to local communities for fire hardening? Resources to create jobs in fuel reduction for the private sector? And the list goes on and on. And it can be done at both the state and federal levels.

We are going back to our mountain range with a few friends and family in late September. We volunteered to rebuild an iconic little springhouse that was burnt at Tamarack Flat. And my thanks to the local Forest Service who helped us work through the complex process to approve the project. I know they care, and they are deeply connected to the mountains as am I. The springhouse is a small speck in a vast land. But I must cling to hope. Hope that people will listen and work together. That we can learn to understand and make change. I hope for local input and local partnerships. Quit attacking each other on social media. What a waste of time, energy, and a cowardly way to criticize anyone who disagrees with you. We don’t all have to agree. I just wish we could listen respectfully and learn from each other.

One of the “survivors.” from last year’s fire.

The hurt is real. It diminishes over time and then hits hard when I visit the mountains or see the very few severely scarred cows that lived. It will be hard to ever sell those cows, productive or not. They made it out alive and are a constant reminder of our smallness in the presence of nature. Those cows, the last survivors, stay on the ranch.

So, I look for hope. The small aspen I saw that germinated, a few ferns here, chokecherry there, a tiny glade with grass. Not much. But symbols of the future. You don’t stay ranching unless you think next year will be better than this year! It is who we are. Respect and work with nature. Respect and work with the cattle and the land. Be kind. Don’t fight with people you disagree with. Listen. And, at best, try to understand. At worst, walk away. You won’t change them, and they won’t change you.

We are driving cows to the mountains above Feather Falls in 2022. One long year off out of 150 – I can’t wait! Next year will be better. That promise is what drives us all.

Moving cows in the Plumas National Forest
Pre and post fire

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Photos courtesy of the Daley family.