Friday, January 6, 2017

Ready for the Storm

With apologies to Scottish singer/songwriter Dougie McLean.... If you haven't heard his song by the same title - be sure to check it out!

If we can believe the weather forecasters (and I have far more faith in the forecasters than I do in the local TV news anchors who tend to overstate inclement weather), we're facing quite a series of wet storms in California over the next week or so. The latest forecast map from the National Weather Service (below) predicts that we'll get between 6-9 inches of rain over the next 6 days here in Auburn. With the rain we've had already, our soils are completely saturated - which means most of this precipitation will run off. And so my work this week (outside of my paying job) has focused on preparation - on getting ready for these storms.

First, I want to provide a perspective on the media's obsession with big storms. Like many of my ranching and farming colleagues, I chuckle at the "storm of the century" headlines and melodramatic newscasters that dominate our local media at present. But my friend Joe Fischer offered a different perspective today (thanks to his wife, Abbie). Abbie reminded Joe (and Joe reminded me) that most folks don't share the direct connection with weather and the environment that we do - as a rancher, I have to care for my sheep, regardless of the weather - and so I've become pretty adept at dealing with all kinds of weather. Abbie suggested that the media has to make a big deal about this kind of weather - or people are likely to do stupid (and dangerous) things.

In our own preparations, we first try to anticipate the needs of our sheep. We make sure that we've got plenty of grazing ahead of them - quality forage, and enough of it, is crucial to their well-being. Since the sheep (and the guard dogs that protect them) are living on annual rangeland at this time of year (without access to barns), we make sure that they have trees, brush and topographical features for shelter. We pay attention to where our fences run - and check them frequently. Wet and windy weather tends to blow down temporary fences and  "prune" our native trees - which sometimes results in branches that drop on our fences. And we make sure that our sheep are grazing on hillsides and high ground - away from creeks that might rise rapidly if we get as much rain as predicted.

Since most of our sheep are grazing properties at some distance from our home place, we think about access as well. I have a pretty good idea where we might see flooding from creeks that cross the roads between home and pasture. I pack a chainsaw with me - just in case there's a tree over the road when I'm headed out to do chores. And I plan for contacting landowners where our sheep are grazing in case we can't reach the pastures to feed the guard dogs.

We rely on portable electric fencing to contain our sheep and help repel predators - these fences are powered by energizers that run on solar-charged 12-volt batteries. During the short days of midwinter, cloud cover can keep the solar panels from charging the batteries - and a dead battery means a dead fence. Consequently, we make certain we have a spare battery available for each group of sheep going into extended cloudy weather.

Closer to home, we've also made preparations. Since we heat our home with wood, we make sure we have plenty of dry firewood and kindling close to the house. Sami braved the crowds at the feed store (Echo Valley Ranch in Auburn) to make sure we have plenty of hay (for the sheep we have at home), chicken feed and dog food. And earlier this week, I spent my evening filling sandbags to protect our garage and shop from runoff from the county road (our house sits lower than the road, so heavy rain can swamp our garage and shop).

As a kid, I read all of the Little House on the Prairie books - and I used to pretend that I was preparing for a tornado or blizzard (which never actually happened in Sonora, where I grew up!). I have to admit that I get an adrenaline rush out of preparing for crazy weather - even if it doesn't actually materialize. I'll probably lose some sleep this weekend worrying about it - and I'll probably still get a chuckle out of the media coverage of the storm. But I'll also take comfort know I'm as ready as I can be for the coming storm. Stay warm and dry, everyone!

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