Grass fire forces producers to forage for greener pastures

“Black,” is how Rob Danychuk described pasture conditions in a region of central Saskatchewan ravaged by fire.

It’s been more than a week since fire burned a large grazing area and wildlife preserve southwest of Biggar.

Fuelled by wind, the cause unknown, the fire took four days to extinguish. It has left cattle producers scrambling for alternative forage and pastureland and destroyed the historic Argo Bush, home to wildlife and winter recreation.

“There’s a lot of burned fence, a lot of pasture that’s unusable this year. You want to be wearing a dust mask because it’s dirty,” said Danychuk, a farmer and a councillor for the Rural Municipality of Biggar.

He and his son, Mat, used tractors and discers working around the clock for most of the four days cutting fire breaks on neighbours’ land and their own 1,000 acres.

Their 100-head commercial herd with cow-calf pairs remains in the home yard.

He estimates fire destroyed about 130 acres of his land, but it could have been worse.

Their night and day diligence, along with several other producers and local volunteers, including volunteer fire departments and aerial applicators, helped prevent more damage.

“I hooked up to a disc and went discing all night and all day until I had tractor issues. It plugged up with the soot and smoke. The air filter completely sealed off. After pulling it out, we went right back in with trucks and quads with water tanks and kept it from jumping over the fire barriers we had made,” said Mat.

Jeanne-Marie de Moissac, the RM’s reeve, said the fire affected 20,800 acres of land, which includes 3,680 acres of crown land and 1,040 acres of wildlife land.

Most of the land — 15,680 acres — is private ownership mostly consisting of pastures and sandy scrub brush.

About 120 kilometres of fence line were also destroyed, which she said was not insured.

She said the fire affected 39 landowners but directly impacted between 10 and 15 livestock producers.

“This is a huge hardship and we don’t have a lot of programs available for these kinds of emergencies. This is a crisis for these farmers. They’re not sleeping at night. They don’t know what to do,” said de Moissac, who has been fielding phone calls from producers wondering if there’s any government assistance on the way.

She said there has been little good news to share on the government assistance front.

“Not much is going on with relief. We applied to the provincial disaster program and that offers relief for disasters, but they offer relief for floods not fires, which is pretty ridiculous in this province,” she said.

The cost of volunteer firefighting and aerial applicators is also unknown and some producers voice concern about what the potential bill could be.

She said many producers are looking at replacement costs estimated to be $5,000 per 1.6 km.

Bob Heather said about 80 percent of his 2,200 acres burned, including about 27 km of fence. Seeding is on hold until he can find grazing alternatives for his 200 head of cows.

“We’re moving them from hay field to hay field and to small pastures that we can rent. Most of them are on hayfields now so that means there’ll probably be no hay this year either,” he said.

“We fought fire for four days and after that it sort of hit us that we’re in big trouble for finding places for cattle for the summer and feed for the winter again, so everybody is a little stressed out.

“We’re running on fumes right now. We have been for a week or more.”

He said he thinks it will take two years before the cattle are in the same pastures again.

“Trying to get through this year is only a temporary solution. The grass will probably grow fairly quickly if it ever rains here, but we’ve got miles and miles of fence to rebuild, but not a drop of rain all spring. It’s really dry.”

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