It was a normal Tuesday at Beretta Dairy. The morning chores had been completed, cows were nearly finished being milked, and the calves had been fed. Later in the afternoon, I went to check my beef cows who are going to calve soon. On my way up from the backfield, I could see Todd Road and a few small fires scattered about. I told my nephew Brayden, who was driving around the property, to drive faster. As I got to the yard, I told him he needed to drive even faster and by the time I got to the road, I could see flames. I called my dad and panic set in. The wind was blowing right into the dairy, the smoke was getting worse, and there were no engines insight. The only thing you can think of in moments like this is that everything is going to burn. Within 5 minutes, the black smoke took over the houses, my dad was across the road trying to stop the flames in the loader and I sent my nephew driving away from it down the field. At that moment, I thought my house and horses were gone.
Cal Fire puts out fire preparation tips and suggestions on Facebook about how to be prepared for when a fire breaks out, but there is nothing that prepares you for what happened to us on a normal Tuesday. Do you grab the important documents or make sure your animals and barns don’t burn? We obviously chose animals and barns.
This fire could have been avoided. The property where the fires started is a property that is owned by the state of California. This property has not been grazed for at least six years. We’ve tried grazing it in the past. We even had a neighboring property with dairy heifers offer to open their gates like they used to, but all they have done is mow a strip around it. Better yet, the county mowed our side of the ditch, but not that side that has grass taller than me- and for reference, I’m 6 feet tall.
We have been dreading the day our dairy is threatened by fire. We had accepted that it was only a matter of time, but there are still so many unpredictable variables. We had a close call last year, and fortunately, it only burned 5 acres. The 5 homeowners on the property have daily conversations this time of year about potential fire risks and our plan of action if something comes to fruition. Thankfully, the city property had been chopped for silage, so it was already mowed down. When the fire hit the mowed grass, it slowed down the spread substantially. This is the prime example of the benefits of grazing land for fire mitigation.
Our state and county need to be held accountable for what happened Tuesday. Yes, a tractor started it as it was driving by, but had this land been grazed and managed, the beautiful oak trees this county tries to preserve wouldn’t be ruined, peoples’ houses wouldn’t have been at risk, and I wouldn’t have to deal with lingering and frightening thoughts that my animals are helpless.
Sonoma County, you need to do better. California, you need to do better. Grazing is the lowest hanging fruit tool there is. Start using them! Start holding these open landscapes accountable to management. This county has experienced enough devastation from fire. I hope this is a rude awakening to the city of Santa Rosa. Had that city field been green, like it should be, it would have slowed down the fire even more. The property was taken from farmers and rented back for farmers to use to grow crops, but the geysers and urban water contracts for recycled water seem to be more important than agriculture. As a result, those fields aren’t green anymore.
I would truly like to say thank you to every firefighter that stopped that fire. Thank you to every friend who called and went to my house to tell me it was fine. Thank you to every friend who showed up at the dairy to help and to other ranchers who helped bring in water trucks. This shows you how strong and tight-knit the agriculture community is. We are here to help one another in a time of crisis. I challenge everyone to call out our state and county officials. Send letters, go to meetings, and throw your hands in the air when millions of dollars for vegetation management are spent in ways that lead to no real, visible change. We need to hold our lawmakers accountable!