By Marcy Stamper
Farmers and ranchers have been scrambling to bring cattle to safety and deal with fire that threatened fields and farm equipment, but it will be months—even years—before the full impact of the Carlton Complex Fire on Okanogan County’s $175-billion agricultural industry is known.
“There are no hard numbers, but I know there are going to be significant losses in terms of livestock—probably between 700 and 1,000 cows, calves and yearlings,” along with horses and other animals, said Jack Field, executive vice-president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association. Field met with more than a dozen ranchers in the Methow Valley last week, all of whom had lost some pasture.
Total livestock losses are unlikely to be available until fall round-up, since many cattle are still on their higher-elevation grazing lands. Some animals are being treated for burns, but many perished in the blaze or have still not been found, said Field.
Crews from county, state and federal agencies buried hundreds of cattle this weekend—between 50 and 100 in Finley Canyon and another 220 in the Chiliwist—and recorded identifying information so owners can file claims for compensation, according to Doug Hale, an environmental health specialist with Okanogan County Public Health.
Many ranchers were able to bring their cattle down from summer range before or during the fire, but concerns remain that animals could get trapped if burnouts are used to combat the blaze, said Field.
Still, bringing cattle to safe pasture is only a temporary solution. Farmers who ordinarily would be harvesting their second cutting of hay for winter feed are now directly grazing their livestock, said Field. “Normally no one would be feeding hay in the last week of July,” he said.
Kurt Clees and his parents, John and Lorraine Clees, lost 100 acres of rangeland and two square miles of fencing in the fire at their ranch two miles south of Carlton. Although the Cleeses’ 60 head of cattle were safe—the animals came down off the leased rangeland on their own, briefly taking refuge in a neighbor’s cherry orchard—the family lost several outbuildings, farm equipment and a pear orchard.
After two weeks without irrigation, their alfalfa crop had not grown enough for a second cutting, so they planned to let the cattle graze the field through the fall, said Kurt.
Like many farmers, the Cleeses expect to have to rely on disaster relief. “If FSA [Farm Service Agency] comes through with the six tons of hay per head that they’ve promised, that’ll get us through winter,” Kurt said.
A big unknown is the long-term impact on grazing allotments, many on public lands. Agencies may impose a rest period of up to five years so that the vegetation and land can recover, said Field.
The Cleeses were already thinking about the future of their livelihood. “The rangeland won’t be recovered for three years,” said John. “Where are we going to graze our cattle?”
Orchard damage unknown
Most orchardists are still taking stock of damage, said Stephanie Chance, communications director for the Washington State Horticultural Association. Because orchards are watered so heavily, most damage has been on the perimeters, with the biggest problem being the loss of deer fencing. Coupled with the extensive destruction of natural deer habitat, deer will be more likely to gravitate to orchards, she said.
Field estimates that 100 miles of fence has been destroyed in the fire. The Cattlemen’s Association has been getting donations of fencing material and offers of help with rebuilding from around the state.
The Okanogan Conservation District has already heard from two dozen farmers who suffered losses to tree fruit, pasture, and irrigation lines, and calls are just starting to come in, said Kirsten Cook, the district’s education and outreach coordinator. “It’s a pretty bad impact,” she said.
The Methow Conservancy, which has conservation easements on agricultural lands throughout the Methow Valley, including several on orchards in the lower valley, also does not have a good tally of the extent of damage yet, said Executive Director Jason Paulsen. The impact on orchardists could be more long term, said Paulsen. “It’s not like they can move the pears upriver.”
As with the efforts to help those who have lost homes and property in the fire, the network for aid to farmers and ranchers is still taking shape, with many agencies, farm groups and individuals trying to figure out how to help.
The Okanogan County Emergency Operations Center, run by the county’s Department of Emergency Management, has been matching up farmers who need pasture with those who have pasture to donate, as well as handling donations of tons of hay from around the state. Dave Yarnell, with the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Department, is coordinating resources—food and boarding—for livestock and domestic animals.
The Conservation District met this week with other groups and intends to be a clearinghouse for information, said Cook. They are also putting together a detailed database of losses.
The Conservation District will help people assess damage and begin recovery and replanting, including how to tell if a tree will die from burns, insects or disease, said Cook. They will also advise on erosion control before the arrival of rain and snow, using temporary measures, such as placement of logs, and recommending seed mixes for restoration.
The Methow Conservancy will be a resource for information about recovery and restoration for anyone with damage to farmland and natural areas, said Paulsen. The land trust is helping match up people who need hay or pasture with those who want to donate some, as well as those who need fencing with a crew to build the fence, said Paulsen.
State and federal agencies have programs to help agriculturists affected by the fire. The Farm Service Agency, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, can provide financial compensation—generally 75 percent of the fair-market value—for commercial livestock losses. The agency can also help compensate farmers for loss of pasture and grazing lands. Other FSA programs are available for people with tree losses in orchards and tree farms. Other programs help with outstanding loans, debris removal and crop losses.
The Conservation District is still researching options for financial assistance for many of these programs, said Cook. The Conservancy is also poised to advocate for additional federal funds for disaster relief, said Paulsen.
Laurelle Walsh contributed to this story.