Burned Out in 2017, A Rancher Confronts Wildfire — Again
Between mandatory evacuations, Meg Brown is caring for livestock, organizing assistance for other ranchers and farmers, and trying to help displaced people camped at the end of her driveway. A sixth-generation rancher talks about the Camp Fire and the hope that it might help rural and urban communities cooperate on land management issues.
Meg Brown is sixth generation rancher and livestock producer with operations in Butte County, California, and the Plumas National Forest. Her family’s ranch is in the zone of the Camp Fire, a wildfire that has killed more than 75, displaced tens of thousands of residents, and destroyed more than 10,000 homes.
Meg has been moving back and forth from the ranch to outside of the wildfire zone during mandatory evacuations. She spoke by phone with the Daily Yonder’s Bryce Oates as the fire was threatening her farm and livestock. Since the interview (about a week ago), Brown has begun helping with relief efforts for ranchers and farmers.
Bryce Oates: Thanks for taking the time to tell us about the Camp Fire, Meg. What are conditions like now around the ranch?
Meg Brown: The visibility is terrible due to the smoke. I can’t even see past the driveway. Being outside, the air is just gross, even when you’re wearing a mask. All of the animals are confused (but so far, the animals are not injured or ill). Our guard dogs, they’re Great Pyrenees, they feel like it is nonstop night time. They’re nocturnal, so they’re just up and worried about me. I keep telling them, “Guys, you have to go to bed.” The pigs, they seem depressed. The cows, too. We have about half of our herd with us here now in the fire zone. The animals are kind of like me, just wondering around. It’s so quiet, so still, just very eerie.
Oates: How close is the fire to your ranch?
Brown: Right now, the fire is surrounding about half of our ranch. Our ranch also burned up last year, about 13 months ago to the day. PG&E (Pacific Gas and Electric, a private electrical utility company that serve most of California north of Los Angeles), started that fire as well. So everyone is saying, “Come on PG&E, again? Get your act together.” (EDITOR’s NOTE: PG&E equipment ignited last year’s fires, leaving the publicly traded corporation liable for up to $17 billion in damage. Officially, the cause of the 2018 Camp Fire remains under investigation. PG&E has reported problems with its equipment near two origins of the Camp Fire. Homeowners who lost houses in this year’s fire have filed a lawsuit against PG&E seeking compensation.)
One major difference this year is that we have really great support this time. Last year, our fire started the same time as the Santa Rosa Fire, so most of the fire resources were deployed to the west and we had minimal support. A lot of damage was done last year, but we did manage to save our houses. With this fire, we have a lot more firefighters and support staff around here. The responders are taking this fire very seriously. So I feel a little bit better, a little calmer this year.
“I don’t think you could print it. I have nothing nice to say.”
Meg Brown, responding to a question about President Trump’s wildfire tweets
Oates: How did the electric utility cause the fire? Was it downed power lines or something?
Brown: Yes. It’s downed power lines. I feel like PG&E hasn’t really done a good job of maintaining some of those lines. We have really big winds here. That’s nothing new. We always have. And it’s really dry here. These are knowns. None of this is new. And so rather than maintain the power lines, they sometimes just turn the power off (in the rural areas). I really feel like they need to work on that a whisper, let’s say.
Oates: I worry about a lot of things on a ranch without power. What about livestock water? Do you have a pump, or a back-up generator or something?
Brown: Luckily, my pig waterers are on solar power. The downside to that is that the past couple of days have been so smoky I can’t get power. My pigs went without power one day, but that’s better now. For the stock water (i.e. the cattle) they mostly drink from creeks, and we have a flume with a water right. But the flume mostly burned up in last year’s fire, and PG&E didn’t fix it right. And now the same thing happens this year, so we don’t have stock water on a lot of the ranch. It hasn’t rained, so we don’t have creek water either. Now we’re stuck with probably getting water delivered soon. We’ll have to call in the water trucks for cattle.
Oates: I’ve been covering wildfires quite a bit this summer and trying to figure out what can be done to minimize fire risk. Have you done any wildfire management on the ranch?
Brown: Yes. Our whole ranch management philosophy is based around risk. The way it’s set up is we have two different ranches. One is up in the Plumas National Forest. It’s in a little valley and is very green a lot of the year. This other part of the ranch, the part I’m on now that is currently on fire, is in Butte County. In the winter, we’re down here in Butte County when it rains and is beautiful. About April or May, it starts to get dry around here, so that’s when we move the cattle back up to the high country (in the Plumas National Forest). We’re mimicking the natural patterns of grazing animals, also giving our cattle a better life, trying to move the animals from the dry areas so we don’t have fire danger. But the last couple of years, due to drought, we’ve moved the cattle like normal but the weather is different. This area is dryer than normal. We’re about four inches of rain short. Had we had that rain, that would have knocked down the fire danger.
Oates: Tell me about the ecology and the landscape where the fire is burning now. Is that grassland or forest? Is this a place where fires have burned historically?
Brown: I wouldn’t call the area a “forest” per se. There’s some pines, there’s oak, there’s manzanita. It’s kind of an in-between landscape. There’s also grassland area, like where we’re at. And, yes, this a place where fire is normal. It’s meant to burn. We had controlled burns up through my high school years (the 1990s), and we talked with Cal Fire last year. They were open to us doing it again. This part of California is managed the best when we are in control of the fires, and use them for good.
Oates: A lot of the land managers — the farmers and forest management professionals — I’ve been speaking with about fire-adapted landscapes certainly embrace controlled burns and prescribed fires. I also hear a lot of scientists making the case for integrating fire into the landscape.
Brown: I certainly agree. I think that it takes a mixture of management, all of the tools at our disposal. We need to use prescribed burns, to work with people about how we build our houses and our buildings. My house is built of stone, and that’s intentional. It’s also a huge reason why I still have a house. We need to be building smarter. Fire is part of California. It always has been and always will be. How we manage that reality is what matters.
This fire right now, it burned an entire town (Paradise, California). That town is completely gone. I still can’t even grasp what’s happened. My friends who lived there, they’re posting photos of the fire. . . It’s going to take some time to handle the situation emotionally. It’s just so different here now. It makes me a little bit crazy. All of this talk about “logging for prevention.” I mean, how are you going to just log a town? That was my immediate thought when I saw Trump’s comments.
(EDITOR’S NOTE—President Trump tweeted on Saturday “there is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”)
Oates: You brought up President Trump’s comments, and obviously there was a lot of incorrect and misleading things to it. He doesn’t seem to understand that the federal government is in charge of wildfire response, that the U. S. Forest Service is in the lead. Forest management is under his own USDA. So I’ll just ask, what would say to President Trump about these comments if you had the chance.
Brown: I don’t think you could print it. I have nothing nice to say.
Oates: Let me rephrase that a bit. If you were going to explain to the public what it’s like to be a sixth generation rancher in Butte County, California, an area characterized by regular wildfires, what would you say to clarify any misconceptions people have about wildfire management?
Brown: I guess I would say that we have embraced a very open door policy on this ranch. I am very active on social media. I share a lot about our operation, and that has given me a lot of credibility with the public. A lot more people now understand how we run the ranch the way we run it, how we manage our cattle the way we do, to mitigate risk and danger. I feel like ranchers need to be a lot more open, to have that conversation and explain how what we do impacts the environment. Now we (as ranchers) aren’t really great at that, and people aren’t really great at asking. But I feel like it’s moments like this, and the whole farm-to-fork movement, too, is when things can get better between the rural side and the urban side.
Oates: So you’re feeling a bit hopeful right now, it sounds like, despite the tragedy of the fire. What do you see happening in the coming weeks and months as the region tries to get back to some sense of normalcy?
Brown: Well, it’s mixed. Part of it is really upsetting. I have many friends who’ve lost their homes. About half say that they’re out of here, not going to stay here, going to leave the state. And the reality is that there are not enough homes for all of the people who are displaced. Look, there’s many people right now who are just camping out in the WalMart parking lot. There are people camping at the end of our driveway. I’m doing my best to help them, but we could have to evacuate at any moment’s notice. It’s also getting very cold outside, and people have to sleep in their cars because they don’t have equipment or blankets or anything. It all burned up. This is the secondary emergency happening after that initial fire emergency.
But I have to say, and this the hope part, that support from surrounding communities has been amazing to see. Everybody is coming together and pitching in. It’s been one of the most glorious things I’ve ever seen. It makes me proud, and emotional. So many people have moved from the area, out of Chico (it’s a college town), and those people are reaching out from all over the world, donating materials and money and sending gift cards. They’re sending clothing, food, just doing a great job pulling together to help the people in need. That part has been amazing to see.