When the Detwiler Fire broke out near his family's ranch in 2017, Tony Toso was home to take defensive action to protect his family and animals. The Mariposa County rancher feels fortunate that he was on site.
“We were on the front end of the fire damage and it started on a Sunday,” recalled Toso. “Had I not been home that day, it would have been very difficult for me to access my property and help keep our livestock safe. Within a matter of hours of the fire starting, the CHP had our county road closed and would not let anyone in.”
Emergency personnel close roads around wildfires for the safety of people and to prevent them from impeding fire suppression efforts. When fire threatens large ranching operations, ranchers need to move their livestock out of harm's way and make sure they have feed and water. While volunteer groups can assist in rescuing dogs, cats, and a few sheep or horses, they don't have a rancher's knowledge, expertise and experience that are essential for managing hundreds of cattle at large-scale ranching operations.
To help rural communities prepare for wildfire, it would be helpful for farmers and ranchers to have a plan in place to coordinate with first responders, according to Max Moritz, UC Cooperative Extension wildfire specialist. Ag Pass is a program developed in Ventura County to identify farmers and ranchers to firefighters, law enforcement and other emergency personnel so they can allow them onto their property to rescue animals and identify access roads and water sources.
“Because fires are increasingly impacting people and are not going away anytime soon, we need to figure out approaches to sustainably live on fire-prone landscapes. In a broader sense, the Ag Pass is another way that we can adapt to, and coexist with, wildfire,” Moritz said.
Matthew Shapero, UC Cooperative Extension livestock and range advisor, and Moritz have written a publication to guide people who would like to create an Ag Pass Program for wildfire preparedness in their own locale.
“Our neighbors had cattle just north of us and they tried to get in and could not,” said Toso. “An Ag Pass in that situation, would have been a huge benefit had I not been at home and then wanted to access my property.”
In Ventura County, agricultural workers can apply for identification cards from the Central Ventura County Fire Safe Council, which verifies farm information through the county's pesticide applicator permit database. Ag Pass members provide detailed maps of their farms that show access roads – including many that don't show up on other maps.
Shapero, who works in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, has been working with ranchers and county agencies to create an Ag Pass program in Santa Barbara County.
“The last few fire seasons have made a program like the Ag Pass more urgent than ever, especially as awareness of wildfire's impacts to agriculture has grown,” Shapero said. “We hope that this publication provides localities with a workable blueprint that will expedite the adoption of this or similar programs.”
Shapero has been working with Anthony Stornetta of Santa Barbara County Fire and representatives of other agencies to develop a training for Ag Pass participants in Santa Barbara County.
“After being at the Carr, Sonoma, Creek and Camp fires for months at a time, I started developing the program from the fire side and presented it to California Cattlemen's Association a couple years ago,” Stornetta. “This was a great collaborative effort. After meeting with our fire safe council, we are looking at the program being fully adopted very soon.”
In September, the Bear Fire raged through the Plumas National Forest where 400 of Dave Daley's cattle roamed to graze. The fifth-generation rancher wrote in moving detail of his grueling search for surviving cows in the rugged terrain during the wildfire and posted it to the California Cattlemen's Association website.
“I was unable to get access initially,” Daley said. “After working with our sheriff, I was able to get access through his office. But it required a deputy to take his time every day for 10 days to meet me at the roadblocks and escort me for several miles into our cattle range. I am very thankful for their willingness to do so. However, it was probably not the best use of their time when they were dealing with so many crises simultaneously and the fire was still raging. If there had been an Ag Pass system, that would have simplified the process, freed up law enforcement and given me a chance to save more cattle.”
Toso, the Mariposa County rancher and president of the California Cattlemen's Association, thinks a program as described in the UC Cooperative Extension publication benefits both ranchers and first responders.
“We can not only help protect ranching families, but we can use the opportunity to build working relationships and create trust between landowners and emergency personnel, as well as provide valuable information to those first responders from knowing the lay of the land,” he said. “Helping other counties and our member ranchers get a program on the books with their respective counties will be a priority for our organization.”
“Given each community's unique agency and personnel structure, it is our belief that the Ag Pass is best administered at the local or county level, however we are working with the state to see if policy measures can be developed that would simplify and support the Ag Pass concept,” Shapero said.
The training developed for Santa Barbara County includes an overview of hazards and safety issues, entrapment avoidance, incident organization, fire behavior, working with law and fire liaisons, access to incident, carding and certification. Stornetta anticipates the Santa Barbara County training will be held in spring 2021 and hopes it can be used in other counties as well. Ranchers who are interested in the Ag Pass training should contact Stornetta or Shapero.
“Preparing for Disaster: Establishing an Ag Pass Program in Your Community,” can be downloaded for free at https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8685.pdf.
(First published Dec. 21, 2020)