Western Wildfires Are a Certainty, So Landowners Must Prepare

LAY OF THE LAND | August 2022

The 2022 wildfire season in the West, since an enormous spring blaze in New Mexico, has been calm. But as recent years have shown, it’s a matter of “when” — not “if” — a wildfire will strike.

Case in point: The McKinney Fire in Northern California, which started on July 29 and quickly became the state’s largest fire of the year. During its first weekend, the blaze in the Klamath National Forest consumed 55,000 acres, forced nearly 2,000 residents to evacuate, and claimed the lives of two people, according to CNN.

Managing the Risk of Wildfire

While a cause has not been confirmed, officials said “lightning and thunderstorms” were complicating efforts to fight the fire near the California-Oregon border. While efforts are ongoing across the region to proactively manage wildfire risk, even that work can have unfortunate outcomes. In New Mexico, for example, the more than 300,000-acre blaze that raged in April and May was started by a “prescribed burn” organized by the US Forest Service, which has since halted all prescribed burns.

Long after these blazes are contained, the burn areas remain volatile because of soil erosion that leads to extreme runoff and dangerous mudslides. In Colorado, for example, the Grizzly Creek Fire in 2020 closed Interstate 70. But since that fire was contained, the interstate has been closed multiple times owing to the chance of mudslides. Water quality also is an issue. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently declared a state of emergency for Las Vegas because wildfire-caused flooding had rendered the city’s water too polluted to drink.

Obviously, travelers and homeowners aren’t the only ones impacted by wildfires. Ranch owners need to be eternally vigilant to protect their crops, livestock and infrastructure. Fortunately, there are a number of resources they can use to anticipate and respond to fire.

The 2018 Spring Fire burned 60-70% of the Moonshine Ranch, a southern Colorado ranch we sold in 2021. While viewsheds were temporarily affected, the hunting has only improved since the burn.

Landowner Wildfire Resources

The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise has the most up-to-the-minute updates on wildfires. You can find the overall wildfire numbers for this year and the past decade, as well as a map of all western wildfires at InCiWeb.

The National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides a variety of support, whether you are looking to reduce wildfire risk on your property or find resources to aid recovery after a wildfire. For example, the NRCS Plant Materials Program “develops plants and techniques for rehabilitation of burned lands and evaluates the ability of plants and landscaping methods to lessen fire damage and protect lives in populated areas.” NRCS also supports agricultural producers through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Emergency Watershed Program that address damage to infrastructure and land after disasters, including wildfires. Learn more.

In what could be another resource, the US House of Representatives approved wide-ranging legislation aimed at helping communities in the West cope with increasingly severe wildfires and drought in late July. The bill would increase firefighter pay and benefits, boost resiliency and mitigation projects, protect watersheds, and make it easier for wildfire victims to get federal assistance.

The National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise USA program offers “simple and often inexpensive ways” to safeguard homes.  Learn about the training they offer. Finally, the Ready, Set, Go! program managed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs provides tools and resources, including grants, to your local fire department to manage and respond to wildfire risk.

What else?

YELLOWSTONE RECOVERY: In last month’s column I reported on efforts to reopen all of Yellowstone National Park in the wake of the destructive June storm. The job’s not done, but officials just opened additional territory: the road corridor from Tower Junction to Slough Creek to hike, fish and watch wildlife. Learn more about tickets and other park entry information.

WATCH AND DREAM: Ever wonder what the ranches we work with look like? Wonder no more: We recently posted stunning videos for the JW Ranch in the iconic Cuchara Valley of southern Colorado, Vagabond Ranch on the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park,  Redstone Reserve at outside Fort Collins, and Bonito Canyon Ranch, a hunting property in the Sangre De Cristo mountains.

STILL ‘STREAMING’: Our goal is to keep you up to date with the latest on ranching in the West. To that end, we just hosted the conversation, “What is Regenerative Agriculture?” Watch as we talk with ranch broker Tommy Latousek and Kevin Watt of the Tomkat Ranch about how Regenerative Agriculture works and why it’s beneficial. Even more relevant to our wildfire convo, check out our latest livestream and podcast as we chat about wildfires and mitigation with ranch broker and volunteer wildlands firefighter, Jared Souza. Check out all of our conversations on the MRG YouTube page.

WATER SAVINGS THAT PAYS: Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper recently rolled out legislation to pay farmers and ranchers to voluntarily use less water to enable more water to go to the Colorado River. The proposed law would restart a previous program” Hickenlooper said in a statement. “If we just sit around suing each other over a hundred-year-old agreement, we’ll watch the river run dry.” Learn more. Note that this is similar to the Colorado River System Conservation Pilot Program that we previously discussed in our Land Bulletin livestream and podcast series. Watch or listen to the episode on Water in the West.

READING REC: Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean describes the events of August 5, 1949, when a crew of fifteen of the US Forest Service’s elite airborne firefighters, the Smokejumpers, stepped into the sky above a remote forest fire in the Montana wilderness. 

Lay of the Land is a monthly column by Ken Mirr, the Founder and Managing Broker of Mirr Ranch Group, that highlights news of the West impacting the ranch lifestyle. Have a question about the West? Email him at Ken@MirrRanchGroup.com.

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