A California Wildfire Burned Everything This Rancher and His Family Had Built for Years
After a wildfire swept through the land where his family raised their cattle for more than a century, a rancher takes a tour of what’s left—and what might come next.
It is almost midnight. We have been pushing hard for 18 to 20 hours every day since the Bear Fire (later called the North Complex Fire) tore through our mountain cattle range on September 8, 2020. There is so much swirling in my head, I can’t sleep anyway.
The fire destroyed the range where our cattle grazed, our cattle, and even worse, our family’s legacy. Someone asked my daughter if I had lost our family home. She told them, “No, that would be replaceable. This is not.” I would gladly sleep in my truck for the rest of my life to have our mountains back.
I am enveloped by overwhelming sadness and grief and then anger. I’m angry at everyone, and no one. Grieving for things lost that will never be the same. I wake myself weeping almost soundlessly. It is hard to stop.
I cry for the forest, the trees and streams, and the horrible deaths suffered by the wildlife and our cattle. The suffering was unimaginable. When you find groups of cows and their baby calves tumbled in a ravine as they tried to escape, burned almost beyond recognition, or a fawn and small calf side by side as if hoping to protect one another, you try not to retch. You only pray death was swift.
My family has taken cattle to the Plumas National Forest since before it was designated such and now leases a portion of the land for grazing. It is steep land on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northern California, a vast forest of deep canyons, rivers, and creeks and the high ridges in between. It is not an easy place in the best conditions.
My great-great-grandfather started moving cattle to the high country sometime after he arrived in 1852 to look for gold. We were poor Irish immigrants trying to scratch a living from the land. There are six generations who have loved this land, and my new granddaughter, Juni, is the seventh. In these first days and nights since the fire, I often find myself overcome with emotion as I think of the things she will never see but only hear in stories.
Day 1: The Fire
When news of the fire broke, my son Kyle, who ranches with me, and I are sure it can’t be as bad as it sounded. We were relying on spotty reporting posted to local news or social media. My daughter Kate, a veterinarian who practices about four hours away, says, “I’m on the way.” My youngest son, Rob, a soldier stationed in Louisiana, says, “I have a lot of leave and I’m on a plane tomorrow.”
At first, we can’t get into the range, because it is completely locked down by fire officials for safety. We are frantic. We know cattle are dying as we wait. We have close to 400 cattle there, most of them calving or close to calving. They are the heart of the herd—good cows that know the land.
I receive a call from a Pennsylvania number. A wonderfully nice man from the U.S. Forest Service is calling to tell me about the fire because I have a permit to graze cattle in the area. I have to help him find the area on the map! He knows less than I do. Frustrating.
Emma Kumer for Reader's Digest
Later I get a call from another fire resource officer from the Forest Service. I ask about access. “Well,” he says, “maybe next week, and only if we provide an escort. We have to make it safe first.” All the cattle will be dead if I wait a week. I politely tell him I’ll figure out an alternative, through private timberland and common sense.
I call our county sheriff. I have to wait one day, but he provides two sergeants to navigate the roadblocks until Kyle and I make it into the range.
We make a fast trip to reconnoiter. We are unprepared for the total destruction of everything we have always known. Nothing left, and active flames burning trees and stumps. Shocking. Surreal.
We see dead cows everywhere. We go home hoping against hope that we have seen the worst. Only later do we realize that it was just the beginning.
Day 2: “No Sound, Just Death”
It is 3:30 in the morning and time to start the nightmare again. Time to find the courage to throw some things in the truck, run with the kids to check and feed the survivors. I work to be optimistic because that is who I am. Not easy.
So many people have offered to help. I am grateful, but we’re looking at almost 90,000 acres of incredibly difficult terrain. Much of it is unrecognizable, even to me. Only those with deep knowledge of these mountains can help.
My kids, a few close friends, and I strap chain saws and some alfalfa on four-wheelers and set out, hoping against hope to find something alive. It is eerie, and, as Rob says, “There is no sound in the forest, just death.”
When we gathered cows, traditionally they were always toward the ridgetop in the morning and down by water in the afternoon. Now, we find nothing high up except the occasional dead cow that wasn’t fast enough.
You learn as you ride through the apocalyptic murk. Rob’s head goes up, and I catch the scent at the same time. The scent of death and charred flesh mingled with acrid smoke that burns your eyes. Eight cows and three baby calves in a pile at the bottom of a ravine, rushing in terror to escape. A sight you won’t soon forget.
But when we meet up, Kyle and Kate have great news. They found 16 head at one of our corrals, the largest group to date. I baited it with alfalfa last night. Remarkable.
Two are heifers that I gave Kyle and his wife, Jordan, for their wedding. Kyle branded them with my dad’s original brand. My dad was a cow whisperer, gone more than four years now after roaming the mountains for almost 90. Maybe he is still helping lead us and the cattle home.
Day 3: Last Man Out
I dread taking my mom to see this tragedy. She will be 90 in less than a month, still loves the mountains and gathering cows. She is tough, but this could break anyone. She first worked these mountains with my dad in 1948, when she was 18, he was 21, and they had just married. She told me later that she had always loved the outdoors but really was “sort of afraid of cows” since she had not ever been around them. She never told Dad and learned to be one of the best trackers and gatherers the mountains have ever seen, knowing every plant, tree, and road.
You can learn from old people. Far more valuable than a visiting scholar or great consultant is local knowledge and observation. I wish we would listen.
I feel bad for Forest Service personnel. Most of them are great people who work there because they love the land the way I do. But they are chained to desks to write reports and follow edicts handed down from those who don’t know. One-size-fits-all regulations are not a solution in diverse ecosystems. I grew up hearing stories from my dad and granddad of the “last man out” lighting the forest floor to burn the low undergrowth. It was a pact between our friends the Native Americans, who had managed it this way for 13,000 years, and the loggers, miners, and ranchers who came later. They worked together because they loved and knew the land.
I remember one December in the early 1960s. Snow was already on the ground of our ranch. I was about four years old and holding my grandfather’s hand as he lit some piles of brush on fire to open the landscape. It was the practice he had learned from generations before.
A crew from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection showed up, put out the fire, and lectured him for burning. My granddad was the kindest, gentlest, and funniest man I have ever known. And he was mad. It was the beginning of the end for our forest home.
I earned my PhD in animal sciences at Colorado State 35 years ago. I loved teaching and ranching, so I did both, traveling nationally and internationally as the odd “academic cowman.” I am the current chair of the California Cattle Council and have served on many other councils and committees. I have walked the halls of Congress and met with legislators in Sacramento and DC. I advocate for the cattle community to anyone who will listen.
I invite any legislator or regulator, state or federal, to come with me to this devastation. Put on boots and let’s go.
Look at the megafires California has experienced in recent years. Almost all of them start on state or federally owned land. The only buffers to these disasters are private, well-managed, grazed landscapes. They may still burn, but the fires are not as catastrophic and can be controlled.
Watch nature. She will talk to you.
Sometimes—most of the time—I think it is as simple as not seeing the forest for the trees. In my academic life, I worked with wonderful faculty, staff, and students who were committed to research and teaching. However, we rarely looked at the big picture because we were encouraged to publish in our disciplines without seeking out how our work connected with others’ or how our small piece was part of a larger solution. That siloed thinking plagues most bureaucracies and agencies. We only know what we know. In academia, most faculty is several generations removed from a direct connection with the land.
It’s no one’s fault. It’s everyone’s fault. Listen to the forest. Listen to the locals.
Day 4: Rescue and Recovery
I hold out little hope for live cattle. We have to get to one more area, Hartman Bar Ridge, between the middle fork and south branch of the Feather River. It is the farthest north, the most breathtaking, and the hardest to access. One road in and one road out, choked with downed and sometimes burning trees.
We see a burned bear cub trying to climb a tree and then a mature bear, burned but staying in the water trying to ease the pain. We don’t euthanize even though our brains say we should. Our hearts say let them try. They made it this far.
We have about six miles of road to make passable, but chain saws and strong hands get us there.
I pass several streams and try to wade across one looking for cattle. All of the creeks have close to double the flow of last week. It strikes me as strange. I see some springs running that haven’t been active for years. And it hits me. We have released the water that the brush was sucking from the land. The Native Americans were right again. Observe. Let nature talk.
We see cattle tracks—lots of them! In one pocket, we pick up 14 head with nary a scratch: two old cows and a bunch of young stock. Those old ladies knew where to hide! Wisdom from days gone by.
After a long day, we have 32 alive and loaded. Some may not make it, but we have to bring them home to give them a chance. They made it this far.
More jarring, though, was to find 26 dead. That fetid smell of death permeated the walk I used to love.
Why did we find over half alive here and nowhere else? If anything, I assumed this steep ridge gave them no chance at all. And I realized that there had been a smaller fire here about five years ago. The country was more open and the fire moved quickly. More things lived. Trees, wildlife, and cows.
Day 5: “We Won’t Quit”
We move as fast as we can, opening roads with chain saws and running four-wheelers down every logging spur. We hope against hope for cow tracks, but there are none.
By the end of a grueling day, we have seven head loaded. Three are badly burned and will get a chance for feed and water before they will most likely die or need to be euthanized. We know of three more live cattle that we have seen but not loaded. That may be it. Over one hundred brought home so far, but I will be surprised if 80 live. Many have lost their baby calves to fire. There are no words.
Our crew will be smaller today. Rob flies back to his Army duty station. Kate is back working as a veterinarian. Kyle and I will continue the search, compulsively walking creeks and canyons we have already searched, hoping something straggles in behind. You never know and you can’t quit. That is not who we are.
And so we go on. What will happen? This is devastating emotionally and financially. I am not sure of the next steps. I do know this: We must change our land management practices if we expect the West to survive.
We won’t quit. We need to get tougher and stronger. We never have quit for 140 years, and I won’t be the first. I’ll suffer the bureaucratic maze and try to make incremental change. And, as always, work with nature. I have to. Juni needs to see the mountains the same way we have seen them forever, to have hot chocolate on a cold fall morning and gather cows. It can’t be just stories from her granddad.
We found an orphan heifer calf today, about two weeks old. Her mother didn’t make it. Kyle stumbled on her hiding in one of the few living willow patches along a stream. He followed her for over an hour straight up from the bottom of a canyon. We caught her, and she is now on a bottle getting milk replacer. That rescue was good for my heart. Juni’s first heifer, I decide! They can grow up together.