Bucher Family and their ranch workers shelter-in-place with 1,400 cows
When mandatory evacuations were ordered for much of Sonoma County during October’s Kincade Fire, Healdsburg dairy rancher and grape grower John Bucher couldn’t just pack up his 1,400 Holstein and Brown Swiss cows and head out of town. And, of course, like most ranchers, Bucher would never abandon his livestock.
Instead, Bucher, self-reliant and a strategic thinker, implemented the shelter-in-place plan he has been fine-tuning since the 2017 Tubbs Fire when it became apparent that wildfires would be an ominous yearly threat in this region and throughout California.
It was a well-thought-out emergency plan to protect his family, 16 employees and their families and the large herd of dairy cattle on his 360-acre Bucher Farms on Westside Road. It was a plan borne of necessity because it would be virtually impossible to relocate 1,400 dairy cows in a firestorm.
“We figured out what we would need to do make sure it was safe for the people, safe for the cows and safe for the ranch while keeping in mind the planned power outages now being used by PG & E during dangerous fire conditions,” said Bucher, 57, a member and past president of Sonoma County Farm Bureau. As a survivor in the financially challenging dairy business, Bucher is accustomed to tough decisions and long-term planning.
Bucher’s plan included developing a labyrinth of two-inch water lines for fire suppression, adding massive storage tanks and ensuring that pumping systems had high-powered, backup generators when the electricity went out. He has heavy-duty hoses strategically placed around the ranch headquarters to dose flying embers and sprinklers on all rooftops. He created defensible space on the ranch and identified a 50-acre dirt pad as a safe place for ranch residents if the fire swept through the property.
Meanwhile, the entire plan was contingent on employees staying on the ranch to join in protecting barns, their houses, and the dairy cows. It would be a team effort for all who lived and worked on the ranch.
“I had total buy-in from the employees who said they wanted to stay on the ranch because they felt safer here with me than evacuating to somewhere else,” Bucher said.
Thankfully, the fire never reached Bucher’s ranch because of the heroic and tireless efforts of firefighters who miraculously held the line on the raging fire at the northern edge of Windsor, keeping it from jumping Highway 101 and burning west to the Pacific Ocean. Looking back, Bucher believes the plan he had in place would have made the ranch a safe haven for man and beast if the fire came through his property, which is closely grazed by the cattle and absent the heavy fuel load of non-grazed wildlands. Bucher’s 40-acre vineyard would also serve as a firebreak.
“Those first few days of the fire were the most stressful time of my life but I would never have had my family and employees stay if I did not believe we had a workable plan in place to keep them safe,” said Bucher, who runs the Bucher Farms’ dairy, vineyard and wine business with his wife Diane. They have five grown children with son Jack the only one living on the ranch.
Even Bucher’s 86-year-old mother Annemarie refused to leave. The Westside Road ranch has been her home since 1958 when she and her late husband Joe Bucher started the dairy after emigrating from Switzerland.
During the massive fire, Bucher, like a combat commander, would routinely go to the top of the hill at his ranch and look north and east to assess the fire’s advancing threat. One night when he was returning from his observation post on the hill, he came upon one of his Holstein cows struggling to deliver a calf. He jumped out of his pickup, rolled up his sleeves and pulled the calf. Both cow and calf survived but it could have gone terribly wrong if he was not there.
It was an aha moment for Bucher.
“It was dark and ash from the fire was falling all around me but when I pulled the calf it was calming,” said Bucher. “At that moment it really hit me. I need to be here, I stayed for my animals and that’s the way it has to be.”
It wasn’t easy, considering that dairy cows have to be milked twice a day, 365 days a year even if there is a ferocious fire roaring just miles away, triggering the biggest evacuation in Sonoma County history. Roads were closed and access severely limited. Bucher had to contact county emergency and fire officials to get clearance for the Clover milk tanker and Hunt & Behrens grain truck to get through blockades so that his cows could be milked and fed.
Sadly, wildfires are becoming the new normal in California and this was not a once-in-a-lifetime crisis. Bucher said he made it through this fire but the threat will be back again next year and for years to come. He will use what he learned this time to be better prepared next year.
“I have to plan for next year, three years from now and five years from now,” he said.
That’s why Bucher and Sonoma County Farm Bureau are working with Sonoma County government leaders and fire officials for a program that looks at the needs of ranchers to stay on their property – or immediately return to it – if they have a protection plan or some kind of certification approved by the county. Farm leaders say livestock operations can’t be shut down like a factory or bakery – cattle, sheep and goats need to be cared for, especially, when a fire has destroyed grasslands, water systems and fencing.
Additionally, growers need to get into their farms and vineyards to harvest their crops and winemakers must return to their cellars to oversee fermentation and transfers during crush.
There is widespread agreement that better systems need to be in place during fires so farmers and ranchers can stay on their land or get back to it if they need to be there for livestock and crops.
“Unfortunately, with every major wildfire, we learn more about the needs of our farmers. During the Kincade Fire, Sheriff Essick and his team worked closely with Farm Bureau to allow farmers access to evacuated areas when critical functions needed to be performed to save crops and livestock,” said Tawny Tesconi, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau.
However, Tesconi said, the process to get permits to these farmers was cumbersome and time-consuming at a time when minutes mattered.
“Before the 2020 fire season, a more nimble process needs to be developed. I am confident our county leaders recognize that access permits need to be streamlined,” said Tesconi. “Your Farm Bureau will continue to advocate for the development of a safe, but effective, property access plan for our farmers during emergencies.”
Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, who represents the northern part of the county and the area of the Kincade Fire, worked closely with the agriculture community, including John Bucher during the fire. He suggests developing a certification program that would allow growers, winemakers and ranchers with the right safety training to do what they need to do on their property during wildfires. He said there would have to be some waiver of liability for those venturing into mandatory evacuation zones during incident command situations.
“There are going to be those who cowboy-up and go into these areas anyway so we need to figure this out. These are disruptive times we are living in and I believe some program, potentially with third-party certification, should be considered to address the needs of agriculture’s critical infrastructure.”
Bucher agrees that a plan would have eased some of the anxiety he experienced as he worked to get milk tankers and feed trucks to the ranch and to leave the evacuated area to buy food for the nearly 30 people who stayed on the property.
“We were an island,” said Bucher.
Although Bucher’s shelter-in-place plan has been in high gear since the fires two years ago, he actually began thinking about self-protection 30 years ago when a barn on the ranch burned down. Because the ranch is in a rural area between Healdsburg and Forestville the barn was fully engulfed in flames by the time firefighters arrived. It was a wake-up call.
“All they could do was keep the fire from spreading to other parts of the ranch,” said Bucher, who realized then and there that he would need to be proactive in protecting his land and livelihood as well as his family and ranch workers.”