Our relationship with fire is one of the things that makes us human. Scientists theorize that fire helped us become homo sapiens; cooked food allowed us to shrink our gut over the millenia, and increase the size of our brains. We also have an ancient history of cooking the landscape, using fire to create habitat favorable to the animals we wanted to hunt and the plants we wanted to gather. The last people to come into an environment unaltered by humans were the First Nations people who entered the Americas. Since their arrival they have shaped nature, often using fire. The smoke that whitened our skies this summer is suggestive of the haze that hung over the northeast in past centuries when the tribes west of us were burning the prairie.
European settlers had a different relationship with fire. For centuries theyhave been suppressing it, which allows excess fuel to build up and makes wildfires hotter. Everyone knows that indigenous people prevented this by yearly burning, but it’s hard to see how we could do that now without massive societal disruption.
An alternative may be managed grazing. It’s already being done in California. For instance, the Bay Area Transit Authority (BART) clears 35 of its 100 trackside acres using 700 goats leased from Living Systems Land Management. Goats are agile and voracioius, eating not only grass, but brush and branches. This removes the fine fuel which could feed fires. The goats work steep hillsides where humans can’t use machines; they fertilize the land, never spark wildfires, as mechanical equipment occasionally does, and they are quiet. The neighbors love to have them.
Sheep are being grazed in some California vineyards for similar reasons; they graze down weeds and cover crops between the vine rows. All this helps keep the flame length below four feet, which allows firefighters to work a blaze without needing to bring in heavy equipment.
A recent study at UC Berkely funded by California Cattle Council has looked at grazing cattle to accomplish some of the same goals. The study sought to quantify how much fuel cattle need to remove per acre to keep flames under four feet, using figures from 2017, when 1.8 million beef cattle were pastured in the state. That’s 57% below the peak in the 1980s; ranchers have reduced stocking numbers due to drought. The study found that cattle grazing already plays an important role in reducing fine fuel and can also prevent brush encroachment; brush increases fire hazard and intensity. There’s room for cattle to do more of this work, but important environmental balances need to be stuck. Ranchers need to leave enough forage ungrazed to prevent erosion and support future growth.
All this points at managed grazing. It’s not enough to simply turn some cows loose on the free range. They must be cycled through the landscape according to a plan that bears all this in mind.
The good news is that thoughtfully managed grazing animals have a great capacity to restore the water cycle. Ranchers all over the world have used it to build soil and increase biodiversity. When soil structure improves and the ground is more lushly covered with grass, long-dry springs and brooks revive, rehydrating the land and reducing the risk of fires. The long partnership of grazing animals and the plants they eat can and must be renewed in the dry, fragile parts of our world. If we do that, sensitively and thoughtfully, we stand a chance of turning ‘fire season’ into a distant memory.
Jessie Haas has lived in an off-grid cabin in Westminster West, VT for 36 years. She is the author of 40 books for children and adults, most recently The Hungry Place.