B.C. fires leave livelihoods of farmers, ranchers in ashes

Every day of the ongoing wildfires in British Columbia brings new tales of destruction, stress and wonder for the province’s farmers and ranchers.

Many of the estimated 35,000 cattle in fire-affected regions, owned by more than 300 ranchers, remain unaccounted for. Some are wandering in with burns severe enough to require euthanasia as the most humane response.

Fences have been incinerated along with homes, corrals and other infrastructure and as more than 140 wildfires continue to burn, more forest and pasture is lost every day.

The province has extended an official state of emergency until at least Sept. 15.

Kevin Boon, general manager of the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association, said he’s heard the gamut of emotions in his phone calls with ranchers: anger, sorrow and black humour.

“These guys are some of the toughest nuts you’re ever going to see,” said Boon, but the stress takes a toll.

“It just yanks at you, but I guess the fortitude of some of these guys … they’re my heroes. What they’ve been through is hard to imagine.”

About 2.5 million acres in British Columbia have been affected by fire since April 1, according to Kevin Skrepnek, chief fire information officer with the B.C. Wildfire Service.

Fires from Montana were making their way into the province last week and a fire in B.C.’s southeast corner had entered Waterton Lakes National Park in southern Alberta.

The federal and B.C. governments on Sept. 5 announced up to $20 million will be made available to help producers cover extraordinary costs incurred to recover from fires.

Though the disaster is ongoing, Boon said he hopes that money will start to flow within the next two to three weeks. The balance will likely follow an initial payment once the impact of the disaster is tallied.

Coverage through Agri-Recovery is wider in scope than has been typical of the program.

It will cover feed costs incurred by fire-induced shortage for all breeding livestock, as well as deaths of breeding stock. Up to 20 percent of the herd can be kept back and the related feed costs claimed, said Boon. Feed shortfalls will be covered through the end of the 2018 grazing season.

“It will take us through next summer because we don’t know how this grass will recover, whether we’ll be able to use a lot of it or not.”

Agri-Recovery will also cover labour for rebuilding fences at a rate of $4,200 per kilometre.

Thousands of kilometres of fence have been destroyed in the fire and although fencing is insurable and therefore ordinarily exempt from Agri-Recovery, most ranchers only insure fences for material costs. Labour is thus a big deal.

“That is huge for us,” said Boon. “That is the one cost that most of the ranchers, some of them, were saying, ‘if I have to rebuild all these fences and infrastructure I might as well sell.’ ”

Another bonus was coverage for costs to precondition calves once they are recovered from wherever they have wandered. Many of the young animals have been living in smoke and avoiding fire for two months. Their mothers’ milk has dried up and they are in poor condition.

Funding will cover feed costs for those animals until the end of November so they can get into marketable shape.

“It also gives us a really good chance to have those cattle to assess for health and welfare purposes as well. That’s a great thing.”

Veterinary costs including pregnancy checking will be covered as well, Boon added.

“We got it included for a couple of reasons. Number one, we know with the length of these fires and with the fact that they started right about the time a lot of the guys were turning their bulls out, that a lot of these cattle are probably not going to be bred or there’s going to be a higher percentage of open cows.”

The BCCA made the case that pregnancy checking would allow producers to market stock sooner so they wouldn’t incur additional feed costs on open cows over winter.

Replacement of some infrastructure like corrals and handling facilities will also be covered so the cattle can be contained and their health assessed before they are moved elsewhere for grazing and feeding.

There’s additional allowance to cover irrigation infrastructure so hay and pastureland can be watered this fall and get the feed growing again.

The death loss on cattle across the province won’t be known until at least January, said Boon.

“I don’t think the mortalities are going to be as high as we originally thought, but they’re going to be high just the same.

“It’s not going to be a few head. We’re going to have hundreds of cattle lost in here. We’re also going to have to euthanize quite a few.”

Some young stock are showing up with burns and blisters on their bellies and feet, and some cows have burned udders.

“You just can’t in good conscience try and keep those alive. This is not something that we want to see them suffer through, so they’re being, as necessary, euthanized.”

The $20 million earmarked via the provincial and federal governments might not stretch as far as needed but Boon said governments responded to the urgency of the situation and since fires continue to burn, the full needs have yet to be determined.

“It’s my feeling that if that money runs out, by then we’ll have a lot better idea what top up might be required. What was important (initially) was identifying what would be covered through an Agri-Recovery program.”

Most of the fires affected rural resource-based communities dependent on ranching, forestry and mining. Boon said money that flows to ranchers through Agri-Recovery will flow back into rural B.C.

“This is not a subsidy or a free give away to these guys. This is a way of helping to rebuild rural British Columbia.”

Though fire loss of this magnitude is likely to affect feed prices across the Prairies, Boon said he doesn’t anticipate major shortages. This spring ranchers got an early and plentiful first cut and many were able to protect at least some of their feed during fires.

In the big picture, massive grassland and timber losses present an opportunity for planning the best location for grazing and forest replanting, with proper spacing to allow ranching expansion and calculated tree planting so similar major losses are avoided in the future.

“We now have an opportunity to correctly plan for the future, and when I’m talking in the future, I’m talking the next 100 years,” said Boon.

“Where do we create the grass spaces, understanding that grass is a huge opportunity to sequester carbon. And there’s a lot of carbon out there right now, by the way.”

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