Hundreds of California cattle feared hurt, dead as massive Rim Fire scorches region

130902-rimfire-10a.photoblog600The monstrous California wildfire that has scorched an area nearly the size of New York City doesn’t just loom over hundreds of homes — it’s also threatening one of the cornerstones of the regional economy: cattle.

Many of the thousands of grass-fed cows who have grazed on lush land in the Stanislaus National Forest — where the massive fire sparked Aug. 17 — are now feared displaced, wounded or dead, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

As local ranch hands deal with their potentially decimated stock — and with the future of grazing in the forest area unclear — the regional cattle industry may take a big hit, according to the newspaper.

“They go out every day, gathering the cows they can find, the ones that have made it into the green areas,” Susan Forbes, a national forest staffer, told the Chronicle. “They’re finding pockets of livestock and concentrating on removing them as fast as they can.”

Forbes told the newspaper that 12 of 36 grazing grounds in the park were devastated by the blaze. Herds of cattle are now scattered over thousands of acres — making evacuation efforts a huge challenge.

The Golden state accounts for 7.4 percent of the U.S. national revenue for livestock and livestock products. It’s also the number one state in cash farm receipts, making up 11.6 percent of the U.S. total, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Cattle and calves were California’s fifth leading commodity two years ago, and remain a chief state resource, according to CDFA data.

Meanwhile, crews battling the so-called Rim Fire made significant gains overnight, officials said.

The fire was 60 percent contained Monday morning, a jump from 45 percent Sunday night, said Dan Bastion, a spokesman for the multiagency fire management team.

Cooler temperatures and higher humidity allowed crews to get an advantage on the fire overnight, according to Bastion.

“The fire is a little less active today,” Bastion said early Monday.

And yet the so-called Rim Fire grew slightly late Sunday, and now spans over 357 square miles, or 228,670 acres, making it the fourth-largest blaze in modern California history, he said. It surpasses a 1932 fire in Ventura County, according to officials.

The fire threatens some 4,500 homes, although many of those structures are “not in imminent danger,” Bastion said. Some 11 residences have already burned down, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Mandatory evacuations still stand for some people south of Highway 120. Tioga Road west of Yosemite Creek Picnic Area remains shuttered, according to The Associated Press.

Crews will continue building fire lines and scorching away the fire’s potential fuel sources Monday, according to the wire service.

Authorities are investigating the cause of the blaze, but the possibility that it was started by an illegal marijuana growing operation was recently raised by a fire chief in Tuolomne County.

Todd McNeal, fire chief in the town of Twain Harte, west of Yosemite, said at an Aug. 23 community meeting that officials “know it’s human caused, there’s no lightning in the area. … (We) highly suspect that it might be some sort of illicit grove, marijuana grow-type thing.”

His comments surfaced in a YouTube video of the meeting.

However, Rim Fire spokesman Brian Haines told NBC Bay Area that at this juncture, the marijuana theory is merely “an opinion.”

In June, 15,000 marijuana plants were pulled out the forest to the south and four miles of irrigation pipe were removed, according to the San Jose Mercury News.

The newspaper said a 40-acre wildfire the month earlier in the same area was blamed on marijuana growers tied to Mexican drug cartels.

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