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University of California Cooperative Extension

Loss of cattle, forage, and ranching infrastructure
from the SCU Lightning Fire Complex

Sheila Barry, UCCE Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor, San Francisco Bay Area
Theresa Becchetti, UCCE Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties


SCU LIghtning Complex Fire
The SCU Lightning Complex fire burned 396,624 acres in Alameda, Santa Clara, San Joaquin, Merced, Contra Costa, and Stanislaus counties, making it the third-largest recorded fire in California history. In all six counties, the land consumed by fire can be primarily characterized as rangeland, which includes grassland, oak woodland, and shrubland. Much of the area, including some public land, is managed as working rangelands, grazed by beef cattle. San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, Santa Clara Valley Water, East Bay Regional Park District, and Santa Clara County Parks, for example, manage land with livestock grazing in the fire area. Some of the rangelands are grazed seasonally (November to May), and others are grazed year-round by cow-calf and stocker operations. The fire area supports approximately 13,471 head of cattle (animal units)/year. Cows generally begin calving in August; some cows in the fire area had newly born calves.

SCU LIghtning Complex Fire 2
Although some cattle deaths were reported (<100 head), the fire moved slowly across much of the grazed rangeland, and cattle were able to move out of the fire’s path. Cattle and wildlife also found refuge in places with little vegetation, including stock ponds and dry creek beds. Some ranchers report missing some animals, which may be found at a later date. There will also be some loss of the current calf crop that has not yet been documented. Total cattle losses are estimated at $969,000.

Although the forage season is nearly complete, most ranches maintain some residual dry matter from the previous year’s growth to provide fall feed for cattle. In calculating the loss of forage, it was assumed that the fire burnt nearly all the herbaceous biomass. This loss may require the purchase of hay to feed surviving cattle or the transport of cattle out of the burned area. In addition to the immediate loss of forage, bare ground results in changes to species composition in the subsequent growing season and decreases forage production for at least the next two growing seasons (McDougald and Frost 1989a, 1989b). Forage loss in year one was assumed to be 200 lbs per acre. A loss of 40% of production was predicted for year 2, and a 20% loss of production was considered for year 3. In areas where the fire was particularly intense, leaving white ash, forage production may be further reduced for three years or longer (Frost 1988). The forage value is estimated based on the cost of replacing the lost forage with comparable hay ($235/ton delivered and fed) (Becchetti et al. 2011). Forage loss value is likely greater than estimated because some landowners, e.g., public landowners, may restrict access for cattle grazing in adjacent unburned areas and limit cattle use in the subsequent growing seasons. Access may also be limited due to a lack of ranching infrastructure to support grazing. In addition to forage loss values, many ranchers may also have costs associated with moving animals and acquiring replacement forage. It should also be noted that included in the fire footprint is land that was not burned by the wildfire but impacted by fire suppression activities. Dozer lines and back burns resulted in significant forage loss on some properties. Total forage loss is estimated to be $18,361,000.

Regarding ranching infrastructure, the most immediate fire impacts are to livestock water systems (melted PVC pipes) and fencing. Post-fire increased sediment from burned land may reduce the capacity of livestock ponds. The total cost to restore livestock water systems is estimated at $14,000,000, with most of the cost associated with rehabilitating stock ponds. Given the extensive footprint of the fire, destroyed fencing represents the most significant economic cost to ranching. Over 1000 miles of fencing may need to be rebuilt. At an average cost of $6/ft, the total cost to restore fencing is estimated at $33,340,000.

In addition to supporting working rangelands, the fire area includes the Southern Alameda Creek watershed lands. Calaveras and San Antonio reservoirs in Alameda and Santa Clara Counties provide collect, store and supply drinking water to parts of the San Francisco Bay Area. The SCU wildfire will likely alter both water quality and water quantity. The Alameda Watershed Plan prepared for the SFPUC recognizes that increased sedimentation is the leading cause of water quality degradation associated with a massive wildfire. Sedimentation will also decrease the capacity of the reservoir. Reduced storage capacity in current reservoirs and degraded water quality could result in losses or delays in service and increased water treatment costs. These costs should also be considered.


For information on wildfire recovery see. https://ucanr.edu/sites/fire/Recovery/

Literature cited

Becchetti, T.A., McDougald, N., Frost, W.E. and Sullins, J.L., 2011. Estimating the cost of replacing forage losses on annual rangeland. UC ANR publication 8446.

Frost, W. E. 1988. Vegetation changes following a vegetation management program burn in the hardwood rangelands of California. Sacramento: California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Vegetation Management Program.

McDougald, N. K, and W. E. Frost. 1989a. Effect of burning on seasonal forage composition and production on hardwood rangeland. Abstracts: 42nd annual meeting of the Society for Range Management, no. 234.

———. 1989b. Seasonal forage production and composition following fire in managed and protected hardwood rangeland ecosystems. Abstracts: 42nd annual meeting of the Society for Range Management, no. 187.