Ranchers Shane Hall (left), Steve Lucas (middle) and Pete Marvel (right) discuss the hardships they faced after last year’s Martin Fire swept through their area northeast of Paradise Valley.
Ranchers Shane Hall (left), Steve Lucas (middle) and Pete Marvel (right) discuss the hardships they faced after last year’s Martin Fire swept through their area northeast of Paradise Valley.
When someone sounded in the middle of the night reporting a wildfire near Paradise Valley, no one who fought the fire could have foreseen the colossal damage it would cause in the space of two weeks.  Nearly a day to the year, a group of biologists, ranchers, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) firefighters, and conservationists stood at the heart of what was at the time, the largest fire in the United States.

Previous wildfires had torched the landscape to the southwest and southeast, some as recent as 2011. But none came close to the scale and devastation the Martin fire had in 2018. By the time the wildfire was contained, it had consumed 435,569, or 680 square miles.  The blaze started July 5 and was finally contained by July 17. 

The cause of the blaze has never been fully determined even though a reward of up to $28,000 was offered for information.

The Nevada Section for the Society for Range Management hosted the “Living with Fire” event June 27, bringing together ranchers, research scientists, and state and federal agencies to discuss the aftermath of the fire. The group brainstormed for solutions to combat the outbreak of future fires and expressed their concerns with the progress of post-fire rehabilitation programs. 

During a round-table session, three of the ranchers affected by the fire expressed the hardship as a result of the conflagration. Cattleman Steve Lucas who operates the 7HL ranch which is north of Paradise Valley said the fire created a financial burden for all those affected by the fire. But he said the ranchers were not attending the meeting to complain but to work through it. All the ranchers expressed their gratitude for the aid from their neighbors. 

Lucas said if it weren’t for the assistance of neighbors like the Crawford Cattle Company to participate in some of their allotments, ranchers would have sold off their cattle. “That wouldn't have been the best thing to do,” he said, “because that's our business, that's what we're in for. To have to sell them because of the fire would have been catastrophic because financially, it's hard enough to make it work.”

Although Crawford Cattle Company stepped up to help neighbors, Shane Hall, Ranch Manager for the company said that the company estimates it lost about 200,000 acres of rangeland due to the fire. “It took out probably our most definitely two most valuable pastures,” Hall said.

The ranchers also praised the assistance provided by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the US Forest Service (USFS), the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), and the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) especially after the fire as the ranchers scrambled to recover from their losses. Humboldt County Commissioner Ron Cerri said he he’d “never seen it better as far as working relationships between permittees and agencies right now.”

However, many of the ranchers face uncertainty as each of these agencies work through a bureaucratic morass to get programs in place to continue the necessary assistance. Lucas said that because the programs have not yet been approved, it has caused a financial burden for him because the cost of rebuilding is coming out of his pocket. Ranchers said other costs associated with the fire include hauling in additional hay to feed cattle, trucking expenses to move cattle to new pasture and the ongoing labor costs associated with any cattle operation.

As the group stood in the middle of the Commissioner Cerri explained the problems the county faces with rangeland fires. “Every county's a little bit different but we have, in Humboldt County, rural fire departments” which are first responders which means that the initial response can put out about 90% of these fires. 

Members from NDOW, BLM, NCRS and other agencies discussed the rehabilitation and restoration on the burn site. The BLM began reseeding in October with a combination of native and non-native species. Efforts continue this year with additional reseeding and sagebrush transplanting. 

For these agencies, the main concern is to restore ecological function to wildlife habitat. The burn area’s large acreage means that a variety of wildlife habitat was damaged or lost and will require different rehabilitation strategies. The areas support a number of endangered species such as the sage grouse and the pygmy rabbit. 

While restoration is a post-fire activity and is a necessary part of any land management plan, many ranchers voiced the need to address land management policies. Hall said that because of the way the allotments are structure, cattle must be moved off the pasture before all the potential feed is eaten. “There's just a carpet of grass that we haven't touched but our cattle need to start heading north to the forest” so the fire fuel load continues to build up year after year, adding “I don't know if there's enough cattle in the United States to eat the feed that we have now.”

Commissioner Cerri echoed that sentiment. “This fire really wasn't a surprise to a lot of us,” he told the group at the burn site. “We've seen the fuel build up out here we knew it was coming but there was nothing we could do about it.”

Cerri said that agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) don’t look at fires in areas like where the Martin fire occurred because no one lives out in these remote locations. the perception is it's sparsely populated and so who cares if it burns. “Well, livelihoods are dependent on this,” he said. “Endangered species are dependent on this … and it's all gone in the blink of an eye.”

One of the results that came out of the catastrophic 2018 fire season was President Trump signing Executive Order 13855 – Promoting Active Management of America’s Forests, Rangelands, and Other Federal Lands to Improve Conditions and Reduce Wildfire Risk, as well as Secretary’s Order 3372 – Reducing Wildfire Risks on Department of the Interior Land through Active Management. The two orders direct Department of the Interior ((DOI) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) agencies to apply policies to improve forest and rangeland management practices by reducing hazardous fuel loads, mitigating fire risk and ensuring the safety and stability of local communities through active management on forests and rangelands.

DOI’s preferred alternative treatment would create up to 11,000 miles of new fuel breaks within a 223 million-acre area that includes portions of Idaho, Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada and Utah. Fuel breaks would be reseeded, using both native and non-native plant species throughout the project area.

Ranchers like Hall, Lucas and Cerri say any approach should be backed not just by science but by common sense and flexibility. “I think we have to have a multifaceted approach to be effective here,” Hall said. “There's not one silver bullet.”