The Excruciating Pain Of Climate Catastrophe In Our Fire-Ravaged West

California fire
Authorities Can Prevent Megafires — So Why Does The West Burn?
Photo by The National Guard/ CC BY 2.0

I got a call recently from one of my oldest friends, a retired rancher in Montana. As iconoclasts go, Ansel set the curve. We became friends during graduate school at the University of Virginia. One time he was delivering a seminar paper on William Faulkner's narrative techniques when he paused, dug in his thick, black hair and yanked.

"Tick," he announced calmly, before tossing it in a wastebasket and finishing his talk. Later, he explained that he'd been squirrel hunting, not an everyday pastime for a Ph.D. candidate.

So it wasn't a big surprise when he left academia to raise sheep in remote Highland County, Virginia. Over time, he kept moving further from civilization until he ended up seventeen miles from a town of 300 overlooking the Crazy Mountains in Montana—by then a world-class breeder of Suffolk sheep.

Most summers I would load up a couple of basset hounds—a mutual passion—and make the 24-hour drive to visit for a ten days of trout-fishing, fence-riding, baseball-watching and late-night bull sessions. One year I arrived while he was doing business on the phone. Without pausing, he slid a bottle of Irish whiskey down the counter and kept talking. His teenaged daughter was aghast. I explained that her father dislikes Irish whiskey; the bottle was a gift. My wife and his ex-wife remain the closest of friends.

Ansel alerted me to an extraordinary essay in Range, a quarterly with cowboys and grizzly bears on the cover. "The cowboy spirit on America's outback," is how the publication bills itself. It features articles sympathetic to the Bundy family's ongoing war with federal "tyranny." The editors think there are too damn many grizzlies killing livestock in Montana.

And a remarkable essay it is. Ansel was hoping I knew a national magazine editor who could reprint California rancher Dave Daley's saga of the "Bear Fire," the catastrophic blaze that destroyed hundreds of square miles of forest habitat, killed 80 percent of the author's 400 cows in the worst agony imaginable, and left him shattered, despondent, and terribly angry.

Ansel said it squared with everything he knew.

Alas, I know no such editors, but as a former small-scale cattleman, I do have a limited understanding of Daley's profound grief. Like any domestic animal, cows can get next to your heart: their unique, steadfast personalities, their strong emotional bonds.

A well-meaning friend asked Daley's daughter if the family home had burned. No, she answered, but a house can be rebuilt. A way of life cannot. At least not during our lifetimes.

The author wakes up nights crying.

"I cry for the forest, the trees and streams," he writes, "and the horrible deaths suffered by the wildlife and our cattle. The suffering was unimaginable. When you find groups of cows and their baby calves tumbled in a ravine trying to escape, burned almost beyond recognition, you try not to retch. You only pray death was swift."

Certainly, the author knows whereof he speaks. His family has been grazing cattle in what's now the Plumas National Forest since the 1850s: Taking them into the mountains after spring snowmelt and gathering them every October. He has a PhD in Animal Science, and is a past president of the California Cattlemen's Association.

Much of Daley's essay recounts the agonizing labor of family and friends—experienced local hands all—working with chain-saws and four wheelers to find and all too often euthanize cows with agonizing injuries; burnt hooves and incinerated udders. The photos are harrowing.

And what the author believes is that these catastrophes don't have to happen. Forest fires are inevitable and can be beneficial in clearing undergrowth that serves as fuel and sucks the moisture from the soil. Virtually all of California's most destructive fires, he points out, have started on public land.

"For those of you on the right who want to blame the left and California," he points out, "these are National Forest lands that are 'managed' by the feds. They have failed miserably over the past 50 years. Smokey the Bear was the cruelest joke ever played on the western landscape, a decades-long campaign to prevent forest fires has resulted in mega-fires of a scope we've never seen. Thanks, Smokey."

Daley sees tree huggers sharing the blame: "And, for those of you on the left who want to blame it all on climate change, the regulations at the state and federal level have crippled—no, stopped—any progress towards changing the unmitigated disasters facing our landscapes."

Alas, it's the "Tragedy of the Commons" writ large. Everybody's got a claim on the National Forest, but nobody's responsible. Insofar as Daley offers a solution, it would be a return to local control, and to controlled burns like Native Americans used to manage ecosystems for 13,000 years before white men arrived.

But that looks politically impossible. For example, who qualifies as "local"? Hence, perhaps, Daley's helpless anger and his elegiac tone.


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