Ranchers carry heavy workload, strain against second-largest wildfire in NM
Massive Black Fire in the Gila defies containment
Laura Schneberger stands in front of her home on Rasper Spear Ranch on Monday, June 13, 2022. (Photo by Shelby Wyatt for Source NM)
Outrunning a setting sun and a raging wildfire, fifth-generation rancher Loretta Rabenau wrangled her cattle to safety from fires last month when firefighters’ told her she had an hour to do so. It’s something she won’t forget for the rest of her life.
As of Tuesday, June 14, at 11:30 p.m.
The Black Fire has burned over 313,000 acres.
It is 44% contained.
Scorching swaths of the Gila National Forest, the Black Fire has forced nearby ranchers to evacuate over the course of the last month.
“Ranching is always challenging … From the time I was born, we’ve been a ranching family, and we know there’s always things,” Rabenau said. “But this fire has been a little bit beyond what the scope of what we usually deal with.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed an executive order Friday to declare a state of emergency over Sierra County as the southern end of the fire expanded. This allocated $750,000 to the state’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to prevent and repair damages.
Rasper Spear Ranch, property of fifth-generation rancher Laura Schneberger, was set to evacuate almost immediately when the Black Fire started, similar to Rabenau’s Santana Ranch. But neither of them nor their families really left the houses permanently, with Rabenau saying she still felt safe and Schneberger fearing she would lose her house if she left.
But once firefighters needed to start backburns — controlled fires to eliminate fuel for the wildfire — on their property, Rabenau and her family had to move their cattle quickly.
It’s normally a four-hour process, she said, but they didn’t have that much time.
Her daughter brought back the horses they had already evacuated, and the family jumped on saddles by 8:30 p.m., racing the sunset and pulling out flashlights on their phones as it got dark to get the job done.
Displacement causes stress for the animals because they’re “creatures of habit,” said Loren Patterson, president of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association. Plus, the ongoing drought created a low supply of pasture land, and grass is still short because the growing season hasn’t started yet. It typically comes with monsoon rains in July and August, he said.
This makes evacuation even more challenging. Not being able to find places for livestock to go could force some ranchers to sell their cattle outright — even if it means going out of the business.
Luckily for Rabenau, her mother’s neighboring ranch had room for her livestock, and she was able to move about 90% of them. The cattle left behind were in lower areas where they could move away from the fire, and although she hasn’t been able to account for everything yet, she said it doesn’t seem like they lost any.
For Schneberger, her husband was in a cast, and the backburns started too early for her to have time to move her cattle. But she said she wouldn’t have moved them anyway, because they know how to deal with fire, and none were lost.
So far, there have not been any cattle reported lost to the Black Fire, said Shaun Davis, New Mexico Livestock Board director last week.
District 21 Livestock Board Inspector David Trujillo has been helping livestock ranchers that have had to evacuate since almost the start of the Black Fire, Davis said, “making sure that livestock are removed and taken care of.”
The forest and the wild animals
The wilderness is toast, said Schneberger, whose ranch is right on the edge of the Gila National Forest. She’s seen elk eating hay donated to her family because they can’t find anything else now.
“It’s just crazy. I’m so angry and sick, and every time I see a little animal out there that can’t find anything to eat, I’m mad all over again,” Schneberger said.
Starting in summer but especially in springtime in New Mexico, a lot of animals are having babies, Patterson said. Sara Marta, program director of the association’s Sierra County Corporate Extension, said she had a friend who had to get about 100 cows out during evacuation. While she and her team were pushing the cows on horseback, one was calving, Marta said, so they had to leave her and the calf behind at risk of death.
“That’s very emotional and very sad for these producers,” Marta said. “They take care of these animals day in and day out. They’re just doing everything they can to make sure they don’t burn up and die.”
‘Between the smoke and the dust’
Rabenau said this time of year would already be busy with branding and manually feeding the cows hay since grass hasn’t grown yet, but the Black Fire more than doubled her workload. At the start, people were calling all the time to check in or give information, and the family was struggling to balance an emotionally tense and tough situation.
“One day, I told my daughter, I said, ‘I don’t know if I ate,’ and I said, ‘I kind of feel hungry, but I have no recollection if I ate,’” Rabenau said.
Similarly, Schneberger is struggling to keep track of time or even what day it is. Not able to keep all of their cattle because of losses, Schneberger and her family plan to get rid of some but keep a core herd they must put out to graze when grass grows.
They have to do that to keep their land allotment, an estate split between the government and ranchers, so livestock can freely graze but the government still owns things like mineral or timber rights. Schneberger’s land allotment has been in her family for about 150 years. As soon as the rain comes, they’ll put the remaining cattle back out.
Air quality is also a major concern. Rabenau recalled “working in between the smoke and the dust” or not opening the windows at night because of the smoke. The air has been better lately as the fire containment is more secure near her ranch.
“Animals can handle it, probably better than the people can, just by the nature of how animals are,” Patterson said. “We put ourselves more in harm’s way than we probably should. But you know, the ranchers are having to work in it every day.”
They come home with headaches, runny eyes and burning noses, he said. “It’s just like the firefighters or anybody else — sometimes we push ourselves beyond our limits.”
Rabenau lost two or three pastures in the backburns. Schneberger lost them all.
“They just destroyed every blade of grass we had,” Schneberger said. They’re feeding the cattle now with donated hay. Local farmers and producers have been donating hay to the association and the New Mexico Livestock Board to help those struggling. Schneberger said it was a “blessing straight from God.”
“Thankfully, we had friends and neighbors and communities that are trying to keep us in business.”
Infrastructure like water systems, supply lines and barbed wire fencing are just a few of the losses ranchers may be dealing with if the fire comes through, Patterson said. He said “this’ll be a multi-year recovery” depending on how quickly the land recovers and grass can grow back again.
Other costs add up — hay, fuel, water, labor — especially considering a lot of these ranches are in rough and remote areas, Marta said. She added other expenses to the list she said people might not consider, like car tires getting blown and needing replacement after driving over rough land.
Forest Service burns
Many producers understand the necessity of prescribed burns, Marta said.
“Even the ones that are most affected realize that in the long run, it will be good,” she said. “Like they know that the burn will be good. It’ll be good for their land. It’ll be good for the trees. It’ll be good for the grass.”
But not everyone agrees on all levels. Schneberger appreciates her local fire teams, especially in the Black Range Ranger District, but said she thinks national groups are just trying to get money rather than truly fix the issue at hand.
“Our grazing allotments are at risk all the time now from these government agencies just rolling over the top of us and telling us they can do whatever they want on us,” she said. “ It’s gotten so demoralizing.”
Rabenau said she is in favor of fire management, but it needs to become more controlled. The Black Fire was human-caused and under investigation. The Hermits Peak–Calf Canyon combo fire was ignited by the U.S. Forest Service conducting prescribed burns.
“I think we’re going to see some significant requests on Forest Service management,” Patterson said. “I think we’re going to have to re-evaluate programs.”
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