Skip to main content

Living with Wildfire

As a kid, I hung out with a kid whose father flew fire planes in the summer.  Brett Hansen's dad, Pete, flew an S-2 - an anti-submarine plane converted to drop fire retardant.  Brett and his family spent the summer and early fall in Columbia; the winter and spring in South Dakota (where Pete flew crop dusters).  One of the truly cool things I got to do in the summer as a kid was to spend the day at the Columbia airport at the tanker base.  I learned (without knowing I'd learned it) that flying a fire plane involved a great deal of waiting around - punctuated by incredibly intense times of fighting wildfire from the air.  Piloting a fire plane, it seemed to me, was a glamorous occupation - Pete got to fly (which I loved) in the mountains (which I also loved).  I could always tell when a fire plan was flying over - just by the sound of the twin engines.

I'm not sure how old I was when Pete crash-landed his plane during a fire on the Stanislaus National Forest.  He was fortunate - he walked away from the crash. The accident, however, made me realize as a child that fighting wildfire was exceptionally dangerous.  As I grew older, the thrill of hearing a fire plan go over my house was replaced by fear that the fire was close.  Indeed, when the 49 Fire struck near our home in Auburn several years ago, I was first alerted to the fire by the sound of turbo-prop S-2s flying low over our rooftop.  At the sound of fire planes overhead, I always gauge the proximity of the fire by the altitude of the planes - a low flight path means the fire is close at hand.

As an adult, I have friends who are in the fire service.  At least one of my high school buddies, Pete Gookin, flies a fire helicopter for CalFire.  Pete actually flew on the 49 Fire.  Other friends, like Matt Smotherman and Kevin Summers, work in more urban - and equally dangerous - settings.  Having been close enough to fire to be frightened, I have utmost respect for my friends and their colleagues.

Summer wildfires are part of living in the West.  The tragic deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots yesterday in Arizona reminds us that we owe our safety to men and women who are willing to risk their lives every time they're called.


Popular posts from this blog

Trade Offs

As we were building fence for the soon-to-be-lambing ewes this morning, someone drove by and asked my partner Roger how long it took to set up the electro-net fencing we use for the sheep. Roger replied, "It's not too bad," to which the driver said, "Seems like a lot of work." Roger's answer - which both of us use with some frequency, was, "Yeah - but this way we don't have to feed any hay!" The driver, who obviously wasn't a rancher, didn't understand - and I suspect even some of my rancher friends don't understand the trade off we're making. Building electric fence is a lot of work - wouldn't it be easier just to feed hay?

The paddock that Roger and I built this morning encloses about 5.75 acres of high quality forage. Since the ewes are on the verge of lambing, their forage demand is peaking. They're eating nearly twice as much grass now as they need in the late summer - after all, many of them eating for three (and p…

No Easy Answers Part 2

In mid October, some friends who graze their cattle in the mountains of western Lassen County (less than 200 miles from our home), became the first ranchers to have cattle “officially” killed by wolves in California in nearly a century. Wildlife officials confirmed that the Lassen pack killed a 600-pound heifer; four more heifers died (and were partially eaten by wolves), but the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) couldn’t confirm the cause of death. While I learned about the depredations shortly after they happened through the rancher grapevine, news of my friends’ losses weren’t made public until the California Cattlemen’s Association and California Farm Bureau Federation issued a joint press release this week. The October 28 edition of the Sacramento Bee ran the story.
If you’ve read my previous blogs about wolves, you’ll probably know that I’ve frequently been frustrated with the Bee’s coverage. The paper has run guest opinions disguised as news articles, and appar…

Humbled and Excited

More than 20 years ago, I went to work for the California Cattlemen's Association (CCA). After two internships, I'd been hired by my friend and mentor John Braly as the membership director in 1992. By 1996, I'd been promoted to assistant vice president - pretty heady stuff for a young guy who hadn't grown up in the industry. I started looking for new challenges. Dr. Jim Oltjen, who was (and is) the beef extension specialist at UC Davis (my undergraduate alma mater) suggested that I think about going to graduate school to prepare for a career in extension. I considered it, but the timing wasn't right.

Fast forward to 2013 (or so) - I'd been working as a part-time community education specialist in our local University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) office for several years. The farm advisors in the office - Roger Ingram and Cindy Fake - suggested that I consider getting a master's degree and applying for a future farm advisor job. This time the id…