California wildfires bring on ‘catastrophic’ year for ranchers

SACRAMENTO As California’s wildfires spread across more than four million acres in the state, cattle ranchers have been among the most vulnerable parts of the agriculture industry.

The fires have ripped through national forests used for grazing, killing cattle and destroying parts of the 38 million acres (15.3 million ha) of rangeland, more than a third of the state, managed by ranchers. As the Creek and Zogg fires ravage the Sierra and Mendicino national forests, ranchers have struggled to evacuate areas threatened by fire and smoke, with many producers unable to get into evacuation areas to rescue their livestock.

Along with power outages also spurred by extreme heat, the wildfires have threatened the world’s fifth-biggest economy. While the losses from California’s cattle industry, which accounts for less than 2% of the total US herd, are unlikely to cause beef shortages across the country or drive up prices, the wildfires have been devastating for ranchers whose cattle have grazed in the forests for decades. Some have lost more than three-quarters of their herds.

Kirk Wilbur, the VP of government affairs at the California Cattlemen’s Association, says they don’t yet know the full extent of damage.

“People are still fighting to save their ranches,” Wilbur said. “This is the most catastrophic year we’ve ever experienced, especially for those who rely on the forest for their livelihood.”

Dave Daley, a Butte County rancher, lost over 85% of his uninsured herd in the Bear Fire. For six generations, the Daley family has worked the land, 400-head of cattle run free in the forest every summer. After the devastation of the Bear Fire, Daley said there is no clear way forward.

The cattle industry appears to have taken the biggest hit after wineries and cannabis farms. Napa County, a top wine production site in California’s US$43.6 billion (RM183.12 billion) industry, estimates 80% of its Cabernet was lost. Damage has been smaller across the state’s farms, which produce more than a third of America’s vegetables and two-thirds of the fruits and nuts.

It’s been a volatile year in US cattle markets. Thousands of slaughterhouse workers caught the Covid- 19 virus earlier this year, prompting shutdowns at plants. That raised beef prices, but the lack of a market for the animals hit prices for cattle.

The California Farm Bureau Federation said most crops have not been significantly damaged as they are well irrigated and situated further from the forests. Most damage has been concentrated on businesses on the outskirts. — Bloomberg