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Ranchers, wildfire and the quest to keep cows and sheep from burning

BENJAMIN, Utah County — For more than 11 consecutive days, Jacky Caras spent her daylight hours worrying about her son-in-law and grandsons, and her evenings crying over the fate of Baby Bull, a prized animal still young enough to be under the care of its mother.

Her family and others in the ranching community are hitting the charred mountains in the Coal Hollow Fire burning above Spanish Fork on a daily basis, spending back-breaking hours on horseback and risking their own lives to save what they can of their livestock.

It's too early to know what the losses are.

As of Friday, the Coal Hollow Fire is only 19 percent contained, charring 26,380 acres. Some fire officials fear it may continue to burn until after the snow sets in.

A helicopter retrieves a bucket of water while fighting the Coal Hollow Fire in Spanish Fork Canyon on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018.
A helicopter retrieves a bucket of water while fighting the Coal Hollow Fire in Spanish Fork Canyon on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

"We don't know how many cows are lost," Jim Caras said. "Some say we may be gathering cows up until way after Christmas."

Ranchers and sheep farmers have been working with Forest Service officials on the ground on a day-to-day basis determining access, the path of the fire and how to move the livestock to safe ground.

"We've been just one step ahead of the fire," said Eldon Neves, describing the precarious and frustrating 16-hour days chasing mama cows and calves from danger to safety.

The association he belongs to with other ranchers has 468 cattle on the mountain, with 150 that remain to be gathered.

He knows he's lost at least six cows.

"It is what it is," he said. "It's been a bad deal for everyone, but it is not something I am going to cry about."

The lightning-caused fire started Aug. 4 and now has 736 personnel devoted to its containment.

Neves is angry, however.

He said Friday the Forest Service is pushing to do a backburn, for a reason he doesn't see, and it will jeopardize the cattle left in a single swatch of green surround by charred countryside.

"I think it is a wrong-headed idea," he said. "They are relentless about this backburning but they need to back off."

Cattle owned by Dave and Jay Hansen and Gillespie Livestock graze in the Hansens' meadow in Milburn, Sanpete County, on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018. The Hansens and many other livestock owners have been retrieving their cattle from the nearby mountains as the
Cattle owned by Dave and Jay Hansen and Gillespie Livestock graze in the Hansens' meadow in Milburn, Sanpete County, on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018. The Hansens and many other livestock owners have been retrieving their cattle from the nearby mountains as the Coal Hollow Fire threatens their grazing area. The mountain behind this meadow was burned by the Hill Top Fire earlier in the year.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

He found one of his cows Friday. Red and tagged No. 49, he has had her since she was a calf and is one of his better animals.

Her hooves have burned and she's bleeding pools.

"We just want to get in here and save those cows. I don't want to leave her up here and I don't want to shoot her just yet," he said. "We are in there every day working as hard as we can to save what we can. I don't think the public understands."

The Coal Hollow Fire is the No.1 priority wildfire in the Great Basin region.

Dave Hansen and his brother, Jay, say they have 45 pairs unaccounted for in the mountains.

"We won't know what it all looks like until the fire is out," Dave Hansen said.

Riders show up to help them without asking, and ranchers are pulling together to help one another to find the lost members of the herds.

"We've had help all around. We couldn't ask for better neighbors," he said.

The Hansens were ecstatic when they were able to secure a grazing permit this year to keep the cows on the mountain until October.

Jay Hansen readies a water trough, intended for his cattle, in Milburn, Sanpete County, on Friday, Aug. 17, 2018. Hansen and his brother, Dave, have been bringing their cattle off nearby mountains because the Coal Hollow Fire is threatening their grazing
Jay Hansen readies a water trough, intended for his cattle, in Milburn, Sanpete County, on Friday, Aug. 17, 2018. Hansen and his brother, Dave, have been bringing their cattle off nearby mountains because the Coal Hollow Fire is threatening their grazing area. The Hansens and Gillespie Livestock are hopeful they can keep them the Hansens' meadow in Milburn. The water is needed because the creek that usually runs through the meadow is dried up because of the drought.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

That permit covering 33,000 acres has turned out to be a nightmare of sorts as the Hansens and others in the association race time and flames to move the animals to safety.

"We're better off than some people," Jay Hansen said.

The brothers are moving water to the cows and calves in a pasture because drought has dried up the springs.

There are 131 pair at this pasture in Milburn just north of Fairview in Sanpete County.

Ranchers are grateful for the ones they have been able to retrieve and hold out hope they can save the majority.

At the Chevron station in Fairview, daily updates on the Coal Hollow Fire are posted outside the business, along with maps of the fire's different zones, describing which are open and which remain closed.

The locals study the maps, hoping for the best.

Neves said the wildfire is so unpredictable and intense, it's like an inferno. Often, the riders are covered with ash that falls like snow.

A dust devil turns black as it picks up ash from an area that was burned by the Hill Top Fire in Milburn, Sanpete County, on Firday,  Aug. 17, 2018. Cattle owned by Dave and Jay Hansen and Gillespie Livestock are grazing in their meadow just below this ri
A dust devil turns black as it picks up ash from an area that was burned by the Hill Top Fire in Milburn, Sanpete County, on Firday, Aug. 17, 2018. Cattle owned by Dave and Jay Hansen and Gillespie Livestock are grazing in their meadow just below this ridgeline because the Hansens and many other livestock owners have been retrieving their cattle from the nearby mountains as the Coal Hollow Fire threatens their grazing area.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Forest Service supervisors say it has been a juggling act to make sure ranchers are moving into territory where their presence doesn't interfere with ground operations or present a safety risk.

There's been inevitable conflicts along the way, with some ranchers and fire supervisors in disagreement over access.

Ron Gibson, president of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation, said the Forest Service has generally been good to work with over the hectic wildfire season.

"We need this kind of understanding, cooperation and action in our country, now more than ever," he said.

At the Coal Hollow Fire, one grazing allotment has had a direct hit, which Neves manages, and about six different sheep allotments have had some sort of impact from the fire.

Cody Cornaby and his brothers run 165 pairs of cows in the Scofield area, which so far has escaped the flames.

They decided not to risk it and moved their cattle to the winter range in the Utah Lake region.

The brothers all work day jobs and do ranching on the side, so they took off two consecutive weekdays to move the cattle out.

Friends from Delta and elsewhere showed up with cattle trucks, refusing any compensation.

"It was neighbor helping neighbor," he said.

Cornaby said he knows of one rancher whose entire ranch burned with no vegetation or trees left at all.

"We feel fortunate it hasn't reached Scofield yet," he said. "We didn't want our cows burned out."

Now, he's facing the reality of feeding them on hay earlier than he ever expected, and bearing that cost.

"You just bite the bullet and go buy the hay. It is too hard to get into the cattle business just to get out because of one bad year."

Eldon Neves, center, rides up Mill Fork in Spanish Fork Canyon as he looks for his cattle that are being threatened by the Coal Hollow Fire on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018.
Eldon Neves, center, rides up Mill Fork in Spanish Fork Canyon as he looks for his cattle that are being threatened by the Coal Hollow Fire on Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Mark Farmer, habitat manager for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources' Central Region, said there will be some reseeding in a wildlife management area that burned and at some spots where there is critical wildlife habitat. The higher elevation terrain will be left to come back naturally.

"There is likely to be some serious flooding impacts due to the terrain," he said.

For now the fire must be weathered and extinguished, and the cows must come home.

Neves went riding Thursday afternoon with another collection of ranchers hoping to find more stragglers avoiding the fire.

Some of the cows are so hoof sore they can barely move. Ranchers have found ewes with burns on their backsides.

On this day, the ranchers hope they find something to give them hope.

Baby Bull, at 7 months, represents the breeding stock future for the Caras family in Benjamin, Utah County. He was rescued from the Coal Hollow Fire the night of Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018, despite more than 10 days of fearing he had succumbed to the blaze.
Baby Bull, at 7 months, represents the breeding stock future for the Caras family in Benjamin, Utah County. He was rescued from the Coal Hollow Fire the night of Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018, despite more than 10 days of fearing he had succumbed to the blaze.
Lindsey Jo Jessperson, Caras Ranch

"We found and hauled 22 pair last night," Neves said early Friday in an update. One of those was Baby Bull, whose mother at one point headed back in the fire to find her offspring.

Everyone, said Clark Caras, was expecting the worse.

"She went back into the burning forest five days ago and came out today with her boy at her side," he said Thursday. It was a victory Caras said they'll take.