AoR 125: The Human Costs of Catastrophic Wildfire, with Dave Daley

The North Complex Fire of 2020 was estimated to produce more carbon dioxide and pollutants in one week than all of the cars in California in one year. That fire was in the list of 5 biggest fires in state history until it got surpassed by the August Complex Fire the same year. But it remains one of the deadliest, with 15 human deaths. This fire also burned to death hundreds of cows and calves, and that toll should not be forgotten. We can have theoretical and scientific discussions about how much wild fire to allow, how much prescribed fire to initiate, and how much forest to thin, but these discussion must consider the high psychological and human costs of large, catastrophic wildfires. Dave Daley knows this in a way most of us will never experience, and he hopes no one else does. This story covers ranch history, fire history, massive plant community shifts, horrific cattle deaths, and the impact of large wildfire on Dave's family.


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>> Welcome to "The Art of Range," a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, range and livestock specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at

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I want to issue a brief note of warning to listeners, something we've not done before, but this episode has some mildly graphic descriptions of burned cattle, including those that died, and those for whom death might have been more merciful. If this will be uniquely difficult for you to hear, you can skip ahead in the audio when you get there.

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Welcome back to The Art of Range. My guest today is Dave Daley, a rancher in California, and professor emeritus from Chico State, along with some other roles that he may talk about in a minute. He grazes on forest service ground on the Plumas National Forest, and experienced a few years ago, one of the worst wildfire disasters in recent history, at least relative to the experience of a rancher. I'm prone to think about wildfire severity in terms of plants that were killed, soils that are made hydrophobic by high heat, and erosion from wind and water on an unprotected landscape after a burn. And those things are bad, and it's right to be concerned about that. But Dave experienced some different kind of loss with cattle killed by fire. And that's a different kind of thing. We sense that animals are different than plants. They feel pain and respond to other animals and humans. And I'm perhaps not being very careful about how I introduce this, but I want people to think about the economic and human costs of fires. The North Complex Fire of a few years ago was one for the record books, and it left fire scars on people, not just on old trees. Dave, I may have to apologize for a bit of a sober introduction, but I really am grateful for your willingness to talk about this. And I know you might be tired of talking about it.

>>Well Tip in some ways I am, because we relive it continually. The scars are still there, and, and in some cases it's more than the scars because we still deal with both the economic impact and the ecological impacts of what happened. But it was, it was -- it certainly changed our operation. It changed our family. It obviously took a big part of our history when originally the Bear Fire, later the North Complex fires got even larger just tore through our mountain range and I have, you know, stories about the animals and you can decide how graphic you want those to be and how hard that was for all of us. But you mentioned the landscape, and that's equally difficult. You know, we've been taking cattle to that land forever, and I valued those old trees and I valued those streams. And the things that I knew and my grandfather knew, and my great-grandfather knew that the fire of this intensity, it will never be the same. And I know, you know, each landscape is different and it would be different in a sagebrush or a juniper or maybe a high desert landscape. But in this landscape of a big timber that this huge fuel loads, it basically cook the soil. There's not much left. And I still see that. So it hits on lots of levels, I guess is probably the best place to say.

>> Yeah. I've got more questions about that and about [brief laughter], the maybe the media attention you've gotten. But let's start with some background on your family and your operation where we're talking about a fire, but I even live in the west and I don't have a clear picture of where the Plumas National Forest is. Where do you ranch and how did you end up being in the position of managing that ranch today? Because not everybody who was born into a ranching operation stays there.

>> Right. Well, and I had other options. Obviously. I went on to Chico State originally for undergraduate. And my master's in PhD were at Colorado State. But you know, when you're 22 or 23, you aren't sure, but somehow it called me home and I knew it. You know, you feel those things. And so I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to come back after a few years. I was at Fresno State for a few years, and then was able to move north and lucky enough to be back in my home area and not only, you know, get involved with the ranch with my parents, but also buy and expand the operation and continue to expand it with my kids and my son and my two sons and my daughter. And so I've been very fortunate, you know, I worked hard at it, but it was something that was really critical to me to get back to this area. The Plumas National Forest is, it's the west, actually, it's on both sides Sierra Nevada, but we run on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada. So that's where all the moisture collects, where the big timber is. We're about 80 miles north of Sacramento. And people in the west probably know Red Bluff. We're probably 60 miles south of Red Bluff but our mountain range, and we're in the foothills, that's where our home ranch is. So where we winter our cows, but our mountains are due east. Some people know where Quincy is, Sierra Valley. We aren't far from those areas, but the ecosystem is actually different. It's big timber country. It's steep, it's wet, lots of snow and then it goes dry in the summer. So we're really part of a multi-generational ranch. When my family came here, they came as miners in the 1850s, and the cattle just kind of grew. They obviously didn't strike it rich, and they probably wouldn't be running cows in the mountains right now, but they came for gold. And all this area, you know, if you were north of the Mark Twain area, if you want to think about the gold country and the mother load, and we're right on the northern edge of that. And that's what this area was actually mining and logging is where it was founded. And then livestock came in after that.

>> Yeah. That's fascinating. I was visiting there for the first time, oh, six or seven years ago on a tour somewhere in the foothills in that vicinity. And we were looking at some of the hydraulic mining where they would take pressurized water and just blast off the side of a mountain.

>> Yeah.

>> It's unbelievably destructive.

>> Yeah. You probably weren't too far from -- I know some of those areas where they -- and if you study history, there was a big fight between the hydraulic mining and the farmers in the valley because of the silt that moved. We kind of stayed. We stayed out of that [brief laughter], fight, the ranchers did. We were on the edge of it. But what most people may not know is in the 1860s there was a major, major flood that basically covered 150 miles of the Sacramento Valley. It was about 20 miles wide, left everything in mud. There were no dams to stop the water at that time, right? Left everything covered with mud, all the farmland, a lot of dead livestock. And so the livestock that were left started going to the Sierras. And that's actually probably about when our family -- our early diaries, say 1880s is when we took cattle of as the only diary where I can see that record. But it was about at that time that we moved cattle to the high country and many people did, sheep and cattle started going to the mountains.

>> Wow. Yeah. That is interesting. So what happened with this fire? I'm aware from reading some of the reports that the fire exhibited pretty extreme behavior. I think the Los Angeles Times reported that the Bear Fire, and you can explain a bit about the name change. I don't know if it expanded, but the Bear Fire killed 15 people. Yeah. How did the fire start and how did it progress and when did it come to you?

>> Well, it's interesting. It was actually lightning cause, it was not man made, but it burnt oh, for about a week on the north side of the Middle Fork of the Feather River in an area kind of Bucks Lake is a general vicinity, and that's sort of a small resort community, summer cabins, nice homes, a lake. But it started in a deep canyon and the forest service said, well, it's not going to go anywhere. And they watched it for seven days or longer burning in a pretty remote area down in the middle fork, which would be hard to get. But they didn't suppress and they didn't even attempt to suppress as long as it was moving away from Bucks Lake, which it was. But the forecast showed extreme winds coming. And I guess my frustration is we knew that, that there was going to be some major winds happen. At about the same time as those winds started to kick up, other fires blew up in other parts of the state. So the resources were diverted to those areas. And there was one further south, one closer to Tahoe, one more to urban areas. And I get it. But frankly, there was an opportunity to suppress this at a very small scale with if they'd use airplanes at an early area. And I think that that's partially my frustration is I realize there's choices we have to make, but by the time they decided to make the choices, they didn't have the resources. And I'm friends with the sheriff in our county, Butte County. The Plumas National Forest is in both Plumas and Butte. And he had kept calling saying, what's going on? What's going on? Is it going to happen? And they're saying not to worry. Not to worry. And they called him that morning and said, it could be in Oroville by tonight. That's about 50 miles.

>> Who's the they, who's responsible for initial fire response there?

>> It was on the national forest. So it is the forest service.

>> Okay, got it.

>> And the response was they didn't do anything. And I'm not angry at individuals because it's more policies than its individuals.

>> Yeah.

>> And so I have a lot of friends in the forest service, and I like a lot of the people, but their hands are tied by policy. And the policy frankly led to the destruction. And those 15 people were actually in the town of Berry Creek, a little community on the edge of our range. Feather Falls was also destroyed. That's another town with one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the United States. It's a 600-foot fall. It's gorgeous. All burned, all gone. And so those 15 people lost their lives, so many homes. But it tore through our country, our mountain range before it got to them. And it was both forest service land and Sierra Pacific, who's my other landlord. I have two landlords in the summer. One is Sierra Pacific and one is the federal government, the United States Forest Service. And we got the call about the fire. We saw it coming. I was actually a couple of hours away and my cousin called me and said, it's in the middle of an area we call a Lava Top in Bearwallow, your range. I said, don't tell me that. I can't even conceive it could be there. I couldn't imagine if it got there that quickly already. And so I called my son and I said, we got to head that way, but in your mind's eye, you cannot, there's no way you can even grasp the level of destruction. But you try and you're thinking, well, maybe it burnt through strip through the center of the range, you know, maybe parts of it escaped. And we headed up there and it was dangerous and we probably shouldn't have been there. Everyone else was leaving, including all the fire people because they couldn't do anything. And we got, I'd say five miles into the range. It's probably 20 miles by -- or it's more like 25 by 10 mile that we're on range. We got there and we stopped by. A friend of mine was Sierra Pacific, and also the sheriff said, you got to turn around. It's around the corner. You got to get out of here now. And we had seen a cow with she calves. We couldn't find her baby calf. And we had to leave her, obviously her and nearly 400 other cows and their baby calves all died. So it was pretty rough. And so hard because then we were locked out because it was still burning to even try and get back and do anything was pretty tough. And for obvious reasons, safety, they locked it. They locked -- I mean they roadblocks everywhere. So we had to figure out how to get in and try not to break the law at the same time because we wanted to save what cattle may have lived. And that was a whole nother drama that went on for two weeks. But we did save a few by getting in there. And my thanks to the sheriff for arranging an escort to get me by the lines. And then the roadblocks. And then he'd say, okay, Dave, don't do anything stupid. Well, I already had at that point, you know, and it was just friends, family, friends. Some of my kids, my kids came home. One from the army, one who's a veterinarian. My daughter is the vet, my son who works with me. And we three or four friends, we spent the next 10 days up there trying to rescue what we could.

>> I was going to ask how long it took you to verify how many died and whether or not any were left alive?

>> Well, we never found hundreds.

>> Okay.

>> Literally. We found close to 100 alive in some form or another and had to euthanize about 50 of those. We tried to bring home some that we probably should have euthanized on the spot and then more of those as the days went on and their hoofs left off or their hides peeled off, or they went blind or their udders were gone. So we buried a lot of cattle here. We'd bring them home and that's a really hard thing to get them loaded. To find them and get them loaded and then come home and have to, pardon me for being graphic. But euthanize means you had to shoot them because they couldn't stand up.

>> Yeah.

>> And bury them. When you do 20 of those in the morning, that's a very sobering feeling.

>> Yeah.

>> It sticks with you a long time.

>> Wow.

>> Yeah. So we continued to work at it and you know, the ones we saved, we were hanging onto them. Some of them still have burn scars, but we feel they deserve a chance. And that's probably not a smart economic decision. You know, when she calves the next year and only two tits are working because the other two were burned off. You know, but you want to give them a chance because they made it that far.

>> Yeah.

>> Yeah. We did find a baby calf up there. This mother had died. We caught that and we caught her and I gave her to my granddaughter and she made it. My granddaughter was a few weeks old when this happened so that heifer is now a cow and went back to the mountains and raised a calf and she's my granddaughter's first heifer. But she didn't have it --

>> Yeah.

>> She didn't have it easy.

>> Wow. I'm sorry if I missed it. What was the date that this took off?

>> Boy, the years run together. It was September 10th. Help me on the years 20.

>> Was it 2020?

>> I think it was, or was it '21? Where are we to, yeah, I think --

>> Well the LA Times article was published in October of 2020.

>> Yep. It was September 10.

>> And it sounded like it was -- okay.

>> September 10th, 2020 is when it started.

>> So we're exactly just over three years out now.

>> Right.

>> Did you say you went -- I'm wondering what the response has been. You know, how's the forest recovering? Have you been off the permit for the last three years and what does it look like now?

>> We had to give up one year. Very honestly, Sierra Pacific has been really good to me. They said, if you want to go, Dave, go. But be prepared that we're going to be running 300 trucks a day down a narrow mountain road of loads of burnt logs.

>> Salvage logging.

>> Yep. On Sierra Pacific. So we couldn't go. The second year -- so that's the other problem is we lost a lot of our cow herd, but we also had cows that we needed to find a summer place for the cows that we did save. And we bought cows trying to rebuild, and we really didn't have a summer home for them. So that's a second story is finding summer pasture, you know, which isn't always the easiest thing to do. The next year we took just 100 cows as a test case, and then this year we're getting close. Next year we'll probably go with full numbers again, I'm hoping. The landscape is really -- it was a beautiful forest and it's really hard to now. We still go and I'm not going to quit, but SPI basically took all the dead timber, which they should have done except they can't along the creeks because of protecting repairing areas. So you know this better than I do.

>> You can't put equipment in there.

>> They had to leave a buffer depending on how steep the stream is, 150 feet on either side or 50 feet.

>> Yeah.

>> So we have -- and frankly, all that's going to fall in the creeks and the rivers.

>> Right.

>> But I get the rules because of erosion. So I understand it, it makes it almost impassable. And they've planted I think nine million trees. Three million a year for three years was the last number I heard. That could be more or less, but it's a lot. And so they planted conifers, mixed conifers throughout because it varies in elevation. The forest service, the federal land has really done nothing. And I know they're buried in red tape. They started this year with a minor salvage project, 300 feet on either side of the one main road into the area. And that's what they've done. And again, it's now the timber has no value. So it will be piled and burnt. And this was gorgeous timber, big trees, I mean, the things that people typically don't see those big conifer forests it's gone and it's now in piles being burnt along either side of the road and the other 30,000 acres is falling down in the north wind. Whenever there's a big wind, there's going to be more. So even riding through it now [brief laughter], you're a little bit nervous. If you can find a way through the feed's coming within it. So the cattle are doing fine, pretty hard together, pretty hard to get your way around. I have a little video of some few strays we found late in the year when there's a snowstorm and a snowstorm in that down timber country is not exactly the safest place to be.

>> Oh yeah. Yeah. I've been around some places like that where you get, you know, three or four years after the fire, you get a little bit above average wind speeds and everything comes down all at once.

>> Yep.

>> Yeah. It would be deadly.

>> And I don't think people, you know, out of sight, out of mind. And I get it. When they see -- when they don't see the destruction or the immediate threat, it's easy to forget. They think it's over. And frankly, I've had ranchers call me and say, well, the feed must be pretty good. You've had, you know, it's three or four years later. Well, that means they don't understand the ecosystem. It's not a fault of theirs. Some places it really does make the feed better in later years.

>> Yeah.

>> And so I think the lesson to me is to always respect and understand that ecosystems varied dramatically and don't make judgments about one that you don't really know until you've seen it or lived it or been with people who have, because it will be different. You know, within California, and I know Oregon and Washington are equally diverse, you know, we have so many different climates here. And so those ecosystems are going to respond differently to fire, different to fuel load, different to plant species composition. And so I hesitate to make judgements about another ecosystem until I've seen it.

>> Right. On the east slopes of the Cascades. And probably similar in the Sierras. You know, you get a cooler ground fire that kind of licks through the understory and doesn't take out trees. That tends to have a positive effect on at least the herbaceous portion of the plant community.

>> Do we --

>> That you get --

>> Do we have any --

>> A forest with a lot of stands?

>> Do we actually have any spots where there's been enough burning of the understory that it's still open? And I only say that somewhat facetiously, but our country, when they started suppressing fire, you get that much rainfall. There is so much, they eliminated the use of fire as a tool, you know, starting in the early 1900s and there was so much fuel load that now you get a crown fire every time. There's no --

>> Right.

>> There's no fire -- there's no opportunity to take that fuel load out the way we should.

>> Yeah. I think this is one of my main questions for you. You know, in this part of the world along with other similar climate regimes and plant communities and other parts of the world is prone to wildfire. I moved out here from Arkansas where you've got growing season precipitation and it's a pretty unusual thing for stuff to dry out enough that it would actually burn. But in much of the west, we have fire prone conditions every single summer. That's just what summer is. And so you know, you have some ecologists who would say we should just let it burn. I'm saying that crassly, I realize that they have reasons for saying that. And let nature reset. And I think it's probably true that we can't get away from, in this part of the world. We can't get away from fire as one of the primary disturbances that maintains things. But how do we go about doing that? Especially in places where we've got a century of accumulation of fuel. You know, I guess in this case we're mostly talking about the large woody fuel, but you've got other people who have, you know, the usual credentials that say that's no longer an option ecologically much less politically and economically because the risk to human lives and human infrastructure like what you just described, is too great to not take an active hand in managing when and where and how these plant communities burn. So maybe I'm putting words in your mouth, but yeah, two questions. One, I want to speak to the risk that I'm running in exacerbating the media attention to this. Even though I'm a range extension specialist, I don't consider myself the media. But you've gotten lots of attention because of the magnitude of the loss. And this was covered by some pretty big news outlets, national news. But did the news come to you because of the extreme character of the fire? Or did you reach out to deliver a message? And both of those are, I think, likely. Not everybody is willing to talk to reporters and endure photographers and [brief laughter] deal with news videographers.

>> Right.

>> So one did, did they come looking for you? Why did you answer the phone and if you have a message, you know, what is that?

>> Yeah. That's loaded because there's lots of questions in there. So if I miss one, just come back and we'll go through it again.

>> Sure.

>> I actually wanted to get the story out in some fashion, but it wasn't. I never expected it maybe to go as far as it did in other ways. So I'm not a social media user. Big surprise. I'm an old guy. I'm not a big fan of it either because of some of the things I see and I'm not interested in what people had for lunch, to be honest.

>> Yeah.

>> So but I did write that and I wrote something, because I wanted to capture immediately what happened. And I asked my daughter to put it on Facebook because I don't post things just because I wanted people to know the magnitude. And that's when it blew up. There were 30,000 comments, I think, on it. And it was international. It was from Australia, from Canada, from Europe, from Latin America, but very heavily obviously towards the arid west. But and everybody had an opinion but I wasn't seeking attention. I just think the story needed to be told. And I don't think anyone has told it. So I'm somewhat uniquely equipped to do that, essentially because, or primarily because I had two professions. I consider myself a cattle rancher first, and I love the natural resource space. That's what I do. But I was also a professor and communication is what I do. I traveled extensively and I've spoken in other countries about livestock production. So communication is part of who I am, and I was president of California Cattlemen, so I had some connections in Sacramento as well as Washington DC and I guess I wanted to see change. And I know that is tilting at windmills. It's not going to happen quickly. It could be 10 years, but I don't think the narrative was told from the perspective of someone who lives on the landscape. You know, as often, and this isn't a criticism, Tip, but often from academics or from politicians, but rarely from somebody who is directly affected, who has the ability to communicate about it. So --

>> Yeah.

>> I wanted to see change and I still do. And I would say, I think I'm seeing some small progress. But I think your comment about, you know, this is complicated, you know, put out the fire, don't put out the fire, right? And unfortunately, as polarized people who are on the same side of the issue, we got to do something, you know? But now they've chosen sides like I'm a prescribed fire user. Yeah. But you're going to let it get away and, you know, I can't get insurance. Well, it's because you haven't cleared the brush around your place. And what I see is unfortunately is nobody looking at the middle ground and say, what can we do? I mean, you know, at a different level, and I don't mean to compare them directly, but, you know, the great depression had the new deal. We're going to start a big program. Well, I haven't seen -- I've seen small steps, but I haven't even seen big steps on saying, how are we going to do this differently? And it's partially because people don't agree on what to do. You know, any of those who don't agree, I would just love to take them to the destruction I've seen at that level. And I think it changes. So no, I didn't reach out to the LA Times. The LA Times reached out to me. I didn't want to take anybody with me up there. I really didn't, particularly a photographer or a reporter. But some of my friends in Sacramento said, Dave, can you, will you? You know, it was like day 10 or 12 and I was exhausted.

>> Yeah. People need to know.

>> Yeah. I was exhausted and grumpy and I'm surprised there aren't more cuss words in the interview, but you know, it was hard and, but if it wasn't captured, then it probably wouldn't be captured. It was still pretty raw.

>> Yeah.

>> Well, we were still in it. But I figured if I didn't do it, it would never get done. So I mean, it's just part of what I had to do. And I also don't want to make this about me. I mean, my loss was significant, but the town of Berry Creek is gone and 12 people, right? And they are still frustrated that they cannot get support with all the disaster preparedness and all the disaster funds. Those people in many cases are still living in motor homes, right? There hasn't been that much support. So the issue is huge, but I really feel it's out of sight, out of mind. And we forget, unless it's us or it's close to a town but isolated areas where this is going to happen and then it's going to burn towns and homes. Nobody sees them. That's why they're isolated, right?

>> Yeah.

>> And that's where the fuel loads are building every day.

>> Yeah. You mentioned there's a need for policy change. You know, the obvious things to be addressed are forest management, fire policy, grazing to manage fire risk. And of course, this is not new, I can't remember where it was, but I ran across -- it was a proceedings of some national fire and forest symposium. And I'm reading this, you know, it's talking about research needs and establishing policy. And I was pretty sure that the proceedings were from 100 years ago. It sounded so much like a current discussion that I had to go and check the date. And I think it was like 1914. It was after whatever year was the big fire in the Pacific Northwest 1907 or '10 or something like that. But the, in many ways, the conversation hasn't changed. And in the intervening century, we have had additional accumulation of fuels and maybe not a lot of change in policy. I agree with you. I feel like the thing that I like about the extension role is that I feel like there needs to be some of us that have one foot in academia and one foot in the real world with people whose livelihoods depend on making sound decisions in this space. And I like being there. There's also not very many people who have both, you know, natural resources I guess knowledge and competency and animal science. And I ran into one of those recently and we're going to interview him pretty soon. But you are one of those people as well, and I feel like they often have pretty good advice because they see maybe more sides of the elephant. So if you had some recommendations what are your feelings about what kinds of policy changes are needed in terms of forest management, fire grazing, all of that and maybe something I'm not thinking of.

>> Yeah. A huge subject and there's so much to be done. And, but you don't start, you know, it's the old cliché of eating an elephant one bite at a time, right? If we don't do anything, we're going to be in the same place. And I do think it's absolutely critical that we keep this in front of people and work for any simple solution. I mean, I really would like to see a program that invests in people who would work on the landscape to make a difference. And that means it's, and unfortunately, it's so expensive. And if you have to go through an environmental impact statement. And at some point, what I would like to see is say these are areas that are so prone to burn, we're going to make change. We're going to do something that streamlines the process to allow people to do it. You know, I've made suggestions here in California, which again, it depends on the budget when it happens. But if you're going to spend money on suppression, why aren't you spending it on prevention, which is much cheaper. And that, you know, those are the urban interface things where we talk about home hardening. I'm talking actually fuel load, mastication, mastication, thinning, actual use of prescribed fire at appropriate times. And we could do it, there are windows in the fall here, late fall that we could actually make some progress. And we have to do it at scale. And so far, it's not at scale, it's just I'll call them, you know, we're going to take out five acres here. Great. The thing I do see is I think the narrative is changing and more people recognize the severity of this issue. And that's what's going to take, the public's going to have to step in and say, we've got to do something. These fires are starting on federal land and then they're burning to private land, and then they're destroying our homes. So it's going to have to be a real aggressive approach because frankly, the size of the bureaucracy, the forest service, they won't make change. And they're going to get sued if they try. And I feel bad for them, but we have got to be more aggressive on getting back to using fire as a tool. But we have to reduce fuel loads before we can. And that's almost, you know, that's a contradiction, right? But we're, you know --

>> Yeah.

>> Why aren't we going back into these areas that burnt, that severely burnt and they're going to come back with brush and why don't we put a fuel line around those and use those as places to not let that brush take over again, right? Because they've already lost most of the fuel loads. So every 10 years maybe you can go through and actually do something and manage them, but --

>> Yeah. And I think the social barrier was a bit of a double whammy because we have both sort of I guess a mindset or a paradigm in the world of natural resources management at least up until pretty recently that said, if we just leave it alone, then whatever happens will be healthy and that'll be good. And I'm only half apologizing for calling that, you know, do nothing as a more, you know, what Barry Perryman has called the pristine myth paradigm. I think we're coming back around in a couple different ways to -- so the double whammy is we have this idea that if we just walk away and let it go, it'll fix itself. The other is that we have these institutions that are large enough that there are significant policy barriers to doing anything and to letting local people make management decisions. And the two of those things together has proven to be, I think, not a great recipe for a national forest. And then at the same time, we also have this increasing recognition that people, that humans probably did a lot more to manage these landscapes than we have been willing to acknowledge, you know, prior to smallpox wiping them all out [brief laughter].

>> Right.

>> A few hundred years ago. So we come into these places that look like they're untouched forests. That's because they have been untouched for some time. But they weren't prior to that.

>> Yeah. Well, I see that. I mean, my family, you know, the stories that I grew up on was last man out lights the forest on fire, right? The forest floor to clear it. And that was Native American. That was a logger. That was a minor, that was a rancher. It didn't matter. But that's what you did. And I grew up on those stories, and it was a much more open landscape at the time. But I did, I testified a couple of times to congressional hearings on this issue, and on one of those I'm trying to remember the Democrats were in charge at the time. So there's three Democrats, one Republican on not that I consider myself kind of a centrist, almost an independent, that's where I fit. But I was the R representative. But there was one academic on there from I believe University of Washington. And her thing was never touch it. That's okay. It doesn't matter how it burns. That's what that -- that's nature. No, it's not. You know, we've had managed landscapes for thousands of years and, but I don't like to defend politicians or regulators, but I do put -- if I was in their role, they're hearing both sides of the issues generally from extremists and very rarely from the center. I did the same thing. I testified to a congressional hearing in Yosemite, a field hearing on this issue. And it was the same thing is people are politically extreme and who suffers are those of us who live on the land or care for the forest because nobody wants to compromise and come to a middle ground. They're sure they're right, rather than there's a middle way to look at this.

>> Yeah. I want to go back, maybe [brief laughter], maybe we'll end on something besides politics even though that's an important discussion. And for listeners who are new, I would refer you to a couple episodes with Rick Knight talking about the radical middle and the importance of spending some time there, because we probably have some things to learn from each other. But for you, Dave, as an animal science guy, and a rancher, and maybe I repeat myself. How did you go about setting up a new cow herd if you're looking to buy animals or somehow establish a new herd from scratch? Yeah. Not the logistics of what did that look like, but how would you go about choosing breed genetics? Mature cow size? That's most, you know, we don't usually go about things by just starting from all the way from scratch.

>> Well, it wasn't entirely from scratch. It was, we had kept our first calf heifers home.

>> Okay.

>> And some of our old cows, and maybe I would say some of our problem cows that maybe had a disposition issue. I didn't want to chase them through the country. So it wasn't ideal, but we did have a little bit of a base there. The second part was really hard. I mean, I sourced cattle, on top of that it's an economic issue, right? There's cows I would like to have bought that I couldn't afford. And so you're stuck. And I was trying to find cows that could function under pretty harsh range conditions. I mean, when I say harsh, that's probably we have what I would say are easy winters, you know, good green feed and pretty simple. And the summers can be tough if those cows are not acclimated to that environment because they don't know what to eat. They don't know where to be.

>> Yeah.

>> So the first year can be really hard. So it was difficult. And I had some, I would say swings and misses with that. I bought some cows out of Montana that worked pretty well. Some heiferettes that, you know, maybe a little bit of an attitude to them, but they were at least used to range conditions. They weren't, I would call them soft inside cows. And then I had bought some cows that I probably couldn't take to the mountains because they were too soft. And so it's -- I'm still searching on that. We're getting to where now we have enough of our own heifers coming back in that have been acclimated out of my bulls that, you know, I still think, honestly, I still feel like I'm three years out. I mean, I was looking at buying some cows last night and then the economics of it [brief laughter], they're really expensive right now. And so you know, it's all those, you know, it's running a business and it's emotional at the same time. And so what you might want to do, you may not be able to do economically. And so you kind of, as I said, hit and miss, here is a load of cows that look like they'll work. Oh, they did. Here is a load of cows look like they work. Oh, they didn't. And it's a slow process. I still honestly, with that kind of devastation, you know, if it was a normal range where you could go back the next year and nothing changed, you could buy cows lots of places. But it's not, so it was much harder to--

>> It's a whole new world.

>> It's a whole new world.

>> Yeah.

>> And so what I really need to do is raise them and I'm getting closer. I was just talking with my son this morning about how many replacement heifers we might be able to keep just so we can start building our numbers again. But you still have to pay the bills, so you got to sell something. So it's an interesting, interesting balance. > Yeah. And how, maybe just a final question here. How is your family doing with it? And what are the summers like? I'm just imagining, putting myself in the situation of, you know, having cows up there in the middle of the forest in the summer. And I think that if I had experienced what you've experienced, I would start to get a little bit itchy when fire season arrives and you've got lightning storms or, you know, 4th of July Camping crowds that are up on the forest. How has that been for the rest of your family?

>> It's still difficult. I think my oldest son, Kyle, who's with me most of the time, we're getting acclimated a little more because we've had to after being up there for a couple, three years. My daughter and my youngest son, Kate and Rob, it still shocks them when they go up because they don't go as often. It's finding places that you thought you knew and now you're lost because they don't look the same. I don't worry about fire too much because there's frankly nothing left to burn.

>> Right.

>> And the crowds have disappeared because it's ugly up there.

>> Yeah.

>> You know, the campgrounds are basically non-existent. You'll still find a tough guy or two. I ran into a somebody fishing up there a month ago and he did really good. He goes, nobody comes anymore [brief laughter]. And so you know, so he's the one guy who maybe was happy with it, but it's a very hard place to go. But my family doesn't want to quit. And that's now the next generation, the grandkids. So every year we always took a camping trip up there and would work on our little corrals and catch pans [phonetic] and we'd stayed there since the kids were very small. And they wanted to go back. And it was really hard because you're camping in basically in ashes and dead timber in places that were very beautiful. But they didn't stop. And they said, we're going to go. I won't say it's the same, but my little grandkids, they won't know any different, unfortunately.

>> Yeah.

>> And hopefully they'll watch some beauty grow and see it change over time. And maybe when they're 65, which I now am, they'll still be going there and find some beauty in the kinds of things that I knew it will never be the same in my lifetime. Maybe in my grandkids, grandkids lifetime will have figured this out. And it will be. I hope so.

>> Yeah. I do too. And hopefully a few things will change in the meantime. I think we'll leave it there Dave, thank you for what you do and for being willing to talk about this and for forcing a discussion whenever you get the chance of saying, you know, we can't just ignore these things. We can't wait until they burn down a town and kill a dozen people. We've got to be working on it all the time. Well, Tip, if you ever get down to this part in Northern California, I can show you the landscape. It's kind of hard to look at. But until people see it, you know, I took a bunch of the governor's staff up there including secretary of agriculture, secretary of natural resources, and several others a year or two ago. And I think it really finally resonated the level of destruction that we are experiencing in the rural west. And I hope that more people can actually pay attention because it impacts them, not just me.

>> Very good. I appreciate it. Thanks again, Dave.

>> Take care.

>> Thank you for listening to The Art of Range podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an email to show at For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast please see the show notes at Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission, empowering rangeland managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Nashville Resource Sciences at Washington State University. The project is supported by the University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

>> The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University's endorsement.

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Mentioned Resources

Read Dave's own account of the fire in his article "I Cry for the Mountains".

And a more recent article at The Guardian, titled: "A California town was leveled by a wildfire. Three years on, it feels the world has forgotten."

Statistics on California wildfires.


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