Last week, we started marketing our feeder lambs. One of our buyers, Jim Bierwagen, is a fellow farmer - the Bierwagen family has farmed in Chicago Park for well over 100 years. Jim is also a firefighter, and a brief moment during his visit to our ranch reminded me of a common trait among those of us who work outdoors in wildfire country. As we were making small talk, a twin-engine plane flew over (our ranch is in the take-off pattern for the Auburn airport). We both glanced up, realized it wasn't a fire plan, and continued our conversation.
That brief glance speaks to our mutual awareness that we live with the threat of wildlfire. I always watch for fire planes during the summer and autumn months. Low flying planes are especially worrisome - the lower the altitude, the closer the fire. When I see planes circling, I start looking for a column of smoke to help me narrow down the location of the fire. Those of us who graze livestock in our fire-prone foothills have a pretty good sense of who might be threatened when we see smoke or planes flying - and we call each other to make sure everything (and everybody) is safe.
For our own operation, I take several precautions. First, I carry a 5-gallon backpack pump and a McLeod (a fire hoe) with me at all times during the fire season. Second, I try to prepare a plan for evacuating my sheep if a fire should occur nearby. My greatest fear is that we'd have a fire that move more quickly than we could evacuate - our current flock of ewes takes four trailer loads to move. Since there is always a possibility that we couldn't load and move this many sheep quickly enough, my evacuation plans generally include the identification of a safe zone where we could herd the sheep out of harms way. Finally, we watch the weather (as we do all year long). High temperatures, low humidity and windy conditions make me especially vigilant.
There are also things I don't do during fire season. I don't use my lawnmower in dry grass after about 9 a.m. (and not at all if the humidity is low and/or the wind is blowing). Even though I drive a diesel truck (without a catalytic converter, a diesel's exhaust system doesn't produce as much heat as a gasoline engine), I don't drive over dry vegetation, either.
Finally, I stay tuned in to local information sources. While we have several local radio stations that do a pretty good job of reporting local fires, I've found that www.yubanet.com is the most accurate and fastest source of fire information. Now that I carry a smart phone, I can access yubanet anywhere I have cell service, which is great.
The morning after Jim picked up his lambs, I was again at the ranch - and noticed a column of smoke to the west. My friend Betty Samson owns the ranch just to the west of the ranch we lease, and another friend runs cows on Betty's place. A couple of quick phone calls, and we determined that the fire was close enough to get our attention, but that it wasn't on Betty's ranch. Thankfully, CalFire jumped on it quickly and held to a couple of acres. I having a feeling, though, that it will be a long and dangerous summer.