Farm Progress

When trouble hits your operation, a disaster plan can make a significant difference.

Melissa Hemken

November 28, 2017

8 Min Read
MOVING FAST: Once a wildfire gets going, time is of the essence. Knowing your escape plan and what action you can, or shouldn't, take depends on advance planning and quality communication.ruig/iStock/Thinkstock

Looking back on 2017, it might have been called the year of the wildfire. These unpredictable disasters take property and lives with abandon as so many found out. As you look ahead to 2018, what should you be doing to be ready if trouble strikes your operation? Advance planning can help develop a safe response.

Once a wildfire starts, by lightning or by human causes, flames move according to dry fuel (grasses, trees) and winds. When a typical wildfire is spotted, ranchers and farmers run out the door and attempt to douse it. Then the rural fire department arrives, and if the fire continues to run wild then state and federal fire units arrive. With these layers of folks spread over thousands of burning acres, combined with the need to move livestock out of the fire’s path, communication can become muddled.

One crucial communication is the warning that a wildfire is coming toward your location. “I’ve heard horror stories from ranchers who either didn't get the message or didn't understand the message,” says Jeanne Rankin, Montana State University Extension associate specialist in agro security and veterinary medicine. “They stayed home, hunkered down, and were later able to get out themselves but lost livestock.”

Communication challenge

With the many ways to communicate today, it is surprisingly hard to spread details of disaster response. Emergency information can be emailed, tweeted, Facebooked, and posted to a central website. But if there is a power outage, there won’t be any Internet. Many people only have cell phones, but if the cell tower burns down it knocks out cell service. The few people left with landlines can be called, but if they’re out gathering cattle the phone rings to an empty house. It’s often left to law enforcement to drive from ranch to farm to notify people of the direction that the wildfire blows and evacuation orders.

Many counties host emergency alert systems, commonly called “Reverse 911.” Residents can register their cell phone number to this system to receive information quickly about disaster warnings and evacuation status, though the best way to communicate is to know the local disaster response coordinator and attend emergency preparedness meetings.

“Most ag extension agents help develop emergency response with the local disaster coordinator,” Rankin says. “Check with them to see how your local disaster network operates. Because you never know when things will happen and what you will need. The networks are there to help everybody.”

Chain of Command

A major part of wildfire response, or any disaster, is effective planning. In rural areas, ag producers need to make sure they are involved.

“The first ones out the door to fight wildfire, nine times out of 10, is the ag producer,” says Scott Cotton, University of Wyoming Extension agriculture and horticulture educator. “The second set out the door is the rural fire district, who are also usually producers. But if no one is talking to each other, that's when people get hurt. The producers don't know who’s in charge, and the people in charge don't know the producers. [At Extension], our efforts are to build a network between emergency management and producers for them to plan together."

Cotton recalls an instance in 2006 when he coordinated a response to a wildfire in northwestern Nebraska. "It took nine and a half hours to get teams into the field to help producers,” he says. “We then started training producers and disaster personnel in communication and response systems. In 2012 there was another wildfire, and in 47 minutes we had people starting to help ranchers move 5,500 head of cattle out of the fire’s path.”

Knowing how a fire moves can save lives. “If you let your disaster coordinator know that you've got 500 head of cattle on the top of Lone Peak,” Rankin says, “and you're thinking you will evacuate the cattle off the north end. They might say, ‘No, the fire is coming up that way. Go off the south end.’ With this information, we can get the best help and give livestock the most humane treatment.”

Knowing the resources available

The act of neighboring that is prevalent in rural areas brings friends as the first help to a disaster. But after the initial 10-hour surge fails to contain a wildfire, it becomes overwhelming for just the neighbors. That’s when knowing how to connect with the county, state or federal firefighting or flood response becomes critical.

A producer, or a group such as the stockgrowers, can work with an emergency manager to inform where the risk for flood or fire is located on ag lands; what resources (e.g. a skidsteer, tank truck, etc.) each producer has to offer; and how to contact all area producers.

Integrated responses to disasters are possible when everyone helping checks in with the disaster coordinator for deployment. If someone drives out to the fire with his tractor and blade without being deployed by the disaster coordinator because of the lack of communication, he could be: caught in a back fire used to decrease fuel sources; burned when the fire changes direction; or have his tractor damaged and not be eligible for re-imbursement if funding is available.

Deployable resources can be a person or an item, such as a tractor and blade or a truck and stock trailer. But to actually be helpful, the coordinator needs to know a person’s skills and offered resource(s) before officially assigning the task.

“Years ago, there was a fire outside Fort Collins [Colo.],” Rankin says. “The radio station broadcast that the sheriff needed horse trailers to evacuate horses from a certain area. There was a mad dash of people with goosenecks and bumper pulls. Well, they blocked the one-way road.

“People couldn't evacuate and the trailers couldn’t back down the road. The 24-foot goosenecks weren’t needed because the rigs couldn’t turn around where the horses were located. Those are the details the disaster coordinator knows: how many trailers needed, and what length and type.”

Don't go it alone

Self-deployment is a significant problem, especially in rural areas because of folk’s self-reliance.

“Unfortunately, one death that I saw was of an 80-year-old man,” Cotton says. “He was out in front of the fire trying to fight it with a hose. It is crucial to fight fires from the back. We found his truck, but couldn’t find him because of the smoke. The heat overcame him and then the fire burned over him. With the fires in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma this last summer the same thing happened: Families out moving livestock in front of the fire without knowing how it was moving.”

By communicating with emergency response, producers will know where the fire is moving and how fast. This informs better decision-making to save human lives, and provides the best possible humane care for livestock.

Range of resources available for disaster help

Check out this list of resources, tips and information you can put to use ahead of trouble to be more prepared if trouble does hit your operation.

Community Animal Response Teams
Several states, including Montana, have Community Animal Response Teams. The volunteers assigned to these teams are chosen for their knowledge and equipment needed to evacuate livestock and pets from disaster areas. “If you have cattle in an area threatened by wildfire,” Rankin says, “and all your neighbors that usually help you gather cattle are busy with their stock, then you can call the disaster coordinator for help from a CART team. Ranchers and farmers need to be on these, because what we're looking for is neighbors helping neighbors outside of where the disaster is happening.”

Learn to identify risk
The first tenet of planning for disasters is awareness of risk. For instance, a huge risk of wildfire is a 1,000-acre pasture of tall cheatgrass dried to a crisp or a forest fire from a lightning strike. “If your cattle graze up on the mountain in the summer, what is the likelihood of fire during the grazing period and where are the evacuation points?” Rankin says. “Are you right next to a river? Is it the 100-year flood that came through the Musselshell a couple of years ago here in Montana? They had two floods and then they were constantly on fire it seems. Think about all hazards.”

Plan and prepare
Create a defensible space around buildings and evacuation check-list:

What to do in the aftermath of wildfire:

Fire mitigation by grazing
Livestock can be used to create firebreaks by grazing vegetation along the border of the farm or ranch. “Take an electric fence and graze your perimeter edges down real low so that when the fire gets to you it drops from 30-foot flames down to 6-inches of flame,” Cotton says. “This gives firefighters a chance to get a handle on the fire.”

Rangeland protections from fire or drought:

Learn and be involved
In the U.S., more lives are lost annually in grassland wildfires than forest fires. Cotton leads the Western Area Livestock and Ag Risk Mitigation Project in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. The project coordinates workshops to teach ranchers and farmers how to organize with emergency managers, reduce risk on their operations, best practices for disaster response, and how to operate firefighting equipment. Many other western states have similar trainings, often hosted by Extension.

For more information on Western Area Livestock and Ag Risk Mitigation Project, email Scott Cotton: [email protected].

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