Neil Kayser knows the damage a wildfire can cause livestock operations.
Kayser, a fourth-generation rancher from the Goldendale area, lost several head of cattle in last year’s Cougar Creek fire near Mount Adams. He’s also bypassed roadblocks to save his livestock from advancing fires.
“A cow, to us, is like a factory,” Kayser said in a phone interview last week. “We worked for generations building up the genetics in these cattle, and it’s not like you can go down to the sales yard or somewhere else the next day to replace them.”
Which is why Kayser and other cattlemen head out to fire areas with their horses and cattle trucks to move the animals out of harm’s way. But that can put ranchers at odds with firefighters, who try to keep non-emergency workers out of the way of fires and their firefighting efforts.
A bill that has moved through the Legislature with strong support would allow livestock owners to enter fire zones to retrieve their animals, as long as doing so does not interfere with firefighting efforts, and the livestock owners and their employees assume responsibility for what happens to them in the fire zone.
House Bill 2925 passed the House on a 97-1 vote, with Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, casting the lone no vote. The Senate passed the bill 47-0, and it was submitted to Gov. Jay Inslee on March 7. By law, he has until March 30 to sign or veto it. Inslee will decide whether to sign the bill closer to the deadline, said spokeswoman Jaime Smith.
Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, introduced the bill in late January. Dent, a rancher himself, said he knows of colleagues who have lost livestock in wildfires, and wants to ensure that cattlemen can fulfill their responsibility to their animals.
“As animal husbandry people, we are responsible for those animals,” Dent said. “They’re not the smartest things on earth, and we have to take care of them.”
Jack Field, executive vice president of the Ellensburg-based Washington Cattlemen’s Association, said some ranchers insure their cattle, but that only covers the market value of the animal.
A typical steer calf goes for about $900 to $1,070, Field said. Breeding bulls typically start at $3,500, while breeding cows typically cost about $1,800 a head and can rear eight to 10 calves.
But there are genetic qualities developed over generations through breeding, as well as the cattle’s knowledge of how to survive in their particular grazing area, that Field said cannot be easily replaced.
“I will not let my animals burn because they are insured,” Field said. Many cattlemen, he said, resort to taking back roads or going off the roads to get around roadblocks at fire sites to rescue their cattle.
The bill, as originally written, required authorities to allow cattlemen to go into fire areas to recover their livestock, while requiring the ranchers to accept responsibility for whatever happens to them when they go inside.
But the bill was amended to allow authorities to block ranchers from going in if it will interfere with firefighting operations, while still leaving the cattlemen responsible for their welfare if they are permitted inside a fire zone.
West Valley Fire Chief Dave Leitch, who was an incident commander at Cougar Creek, said allowing cattlemen into a wildfire zone potentially increases the danger, but said it can work if everyone communicates and cooperates.
Leitch said ranchers trying to get into the fire zone at Cougar Creek were “a daily occurrence” but manageable.
While firefighters and ranchers got off to a bad start at Cougar Creek, Leitch said things improved as cowboys started checking in with incident commanders and attended briefings, where they would report on the number of cattle they moved.
Firefighters, in turn, told the cattlemen where they had spotted cattle and where the fire was likely to spread, and they offered them protective clothing.
Without coordination, Leitch said, cattlemen’s horse and stock trailers and driven cattle can easily tie up key roads that firefighters need to move personnel and equipment or to use as escape routes if a fire goes out of control.
Brian Vogel, chief of Yakima County Fire District No. 5, which covers the Lower Valley, sees potential for danger in allowing cattlemen into wildfire zones.
“This is a disaster waiting to happen,” Vogel said. Wildfires, he said, are unpredictable and can turn and trap even the most experienced firefighters.
Although the cattlemen agree to accept responsibility for whatever happens to them when they go in, Vogel said it will still be up to firefighters to rescue them if they are overtaken by fire. And he said that puts firefighters at risk.