Is Your Ranch Fire-proof?

by Dave Pratt

The risk of wildfire has always been a normal part of ranching. But today we are faced with a new normal that includes the increased risk of catastrophic wildfire.

The number of wildfires hasn’t changed much. There are roughly the same number of fires now as when I was cutting fire lines on a Forest Service Hotshot crew 40 years ago. But the size of the fires has changed. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, wildfires are burning four times more acres annually in this decade then they did in the 70’s and 80’s.  

Over the past few years I’ve held disaster recovery workshops in Kansas, Montana and British Columbia for folks who’ve suffered losses from catastrophic wildfires. The centerpiece of the workshops is the RMC Risk Management Model. For fire, or any other risk, the model guides people through the process of risk proofing their business, managing through the event while it is occurring and recovering from the event once it is over. The model also recognizes that fires, drought, floods, and other risks impact land, animals, money and people.  The model provides a framework to think through risk proofing, management and recovery strategies for land, animals, money and people.

Some people try to fire-proof their ranches by grazing severely every year so that there’s no fuel left at the end of the growing season to carry a fire. But severe grazing isn’t the answer. It exposes soil, which promotes runoff, erosion, weeds and a shift to a lower, less productive ecological state. This strategy may fire-proof your ranch, but it will profit proof it too, making it impossible to make a profit.

To us “fire-proofing” a ranch doesn’t mean that you will be able to prevent all fires. It means that your business will survive a wildfire with minimal impact.

Fire-proofing a ranch begins with creating an enterprise mix that is compatible with the fire risk of your country. If you have extreme seasonal fire danger every year, at least part of your enterprise mix should be seasonal. This eliminates the threat of losing livestock and the feed it takes to support them.

In all but the most extreme cases, you don’t have to be 100% seasonal to effectively fire-proof your ranch.  In fact, whether it’s fire, drought, flooding or severe winters with deep snow, managing your business as though the worst case was going to happen every year is NOT a profitable strategy. It is much more profitable (and more fun) to manage for what usually happens and build a contingency to deal with the crisis.  There are many ranches where long-term profitability is better with a mix of year-round and seasonal enterprises. Their contingency could be to completely destock the seasonal enterprise, do a heavy cull in the year-round enterprise, buy hay to make up for the lost feed or some combination of these or other strategies. Of course, you’ll need to crunch the numbers to determine the best options for your ranch.

Fire-proofing your ranch to make sure the enterprise mix is compatible with your fire risk and having contingency plans makes it easier to do the right thing at the right time. It makes it easier to manage through and recover from wildfire.  It also makes it easier to sleep well knowing that even if you lose feed to fire this season, you’ll be okay.

Watch the video below for more on fire-proofing and the RMC risk management model:

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