How the California Fires Affected Dairy Goat Owners

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How the California Fires Affected Dairy Goat Owners

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Over four million acres burned. Over 10,000 structures destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people displaced, some for a couple of days, some for months as they rebuild their homes. The wildfires in California have been devastating, and the fires weren’t isolated to one state. Oregon and Colorado had much worse fire seasons as well. An evacuation order is scary and sometimes doesn’t come with much warning. Do you have fire evacuation procedures for your livestock and pets?

Castle Rock Nigerian farm watched wildfires move past, each late summer, for several years. Often, lightning struck near the dam above their land, and the fire moved slowly west. After five or six days, the fire would be level to their farm, and with fingers crossed, it still moved west until brought under control.  

This time, things were different.  

At the end of a scorching week, overnight lows only reaching the 90s with very low humidity, one lightning storm followed another. Just as before, the fire started near the dam. Believing that it would follow a similar pattern, they went to bed that night, thinking it would be at least a few days before it could move east and threaten the farm.  

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A little before 3 a.m., the call came. Evacuate immediately.  

As they gathered the dogs and moved outside, they saw the fire coming on two sides of their farm. There was no time to gather the animals. On a good day and with only the goats used to traveling in a trailer, it would still take upwards of 45 minutes to hitch the trailer to the truck and load the goats inside. Forty-five minutes did not exist that night. As they got themselves and the dogs in the vehicle, the fire surrounded three sides of the farm. They barely made it out.  

With the high temperature and 50mph winds that sounded like a freight train, the fire burned so hotly that even two-inch grass sent flames seven feet in the air. 

Two mornings later, Sarah Hawkins went back to her beloved farm to survey the damage. The house, barn, outbuildings, half the fences, and all the stored feed were gone. Half of the goat herd, including all the kids they planned to keep, had been penned by the barn. Fortunately, some goats managed to burst through a weak spot in the fence to join others in pastures, but many died. The chicken coop with all of its inhabitants perished. The llama survived the fire, but with feet severely burned, and had to be put down. The fire melted silver items in the house, and even the steel milking stands were warped and sagging. The loss was devastating. How did this happen? Was it possible to prepare? 

The answer lies in California’s recent weather patterns. They experienced severe drought for multiple years, then one rainy year, then more drought combined with higher-than-normal temperatures. Sarah lived most of her life in California; this weather was not normal until roughly five years ago.  

She had literally no forest around her farm. All farmed or grazed without enough trees for logging, it was not a forest mismanagement issue.  

With the high temperature and 50mph winds that sounded like a freight train, the fire burned so hotly that even two-inch grass sent flames seven feet in the air. The barn was mostly metal with a cement pad in front; the ground surrounding it was bare and raked often. The fire shouldn’t have even made it to the barn. Yet it did.  

As Castle Rock Nigerians work to rebuild, they face many obstacles, not the least of which being insurance. You must prove that you owned everything you wish to claim on the insurance as a loss. Even then, insurance may not pay out enough to replace the equivalent. 

With such heartbreaking loss and devastation, people rushed to assist and created a glimmer of hope. Her goat-keeping community boosted Sarah to keep going when she contemplated throwing in the towel on raising goats. Others created organizations to assist those who lost so much. One such organization is Bucks to Rebuild. Initially created as a fundraiser to benefit the California goat keepers, it expanded to help others in natural disasters across the country, including Louisiana’s hurricanes. Bucks to Rebuild accepts donations primarily of semen and kids, which they then raffle or auctioned off, with the proceeds going to those who need them. The livestock community rallied and also donated pigs, livestock transportation, and many other items to the raffle. The first one was an overwhelming success. Nobody solicited a single donation; donors offered everything without even being asked. Because the dairy goat community is so connected, Bucks to Rebuild started word-of-mouth to determine who needed the assistance, but now they have an application process reviewed by a panel. They enthusiastically accept more volunteers and donations toward the next raffle.  

“Could have, would have, should have” is much less effective than “What can I do?” Disasters reveal who you are and who your friends are.

As you consider helping those who suffered from fires or other disasters, some actions help more than others. Cindy Bright, one of Bucks to Rebuild’s main organizers, tells us to “take your emotions out and put your business hat on” when it comes to helping. Certainly, manual labor supports clean-up efforts. Meals are often greatly appreciated. Before you offer cast-off furniture, hand-me-down clothes, and various commodities, consider that the recipient may know what they need more than you do. Perhaps they are still paying the burned house’s mortgage plus rent for an apartment as the house is rebuilt. Prepaid cards often come with fees, so the receiver doesn’t get to use all money. Cash may be better but can feel impersonal. If you are distant and don’t know those involved, try participating in a fundraiser such as the Bucks to Rebuild. Other local groups connect people during emergencies, whether they need rapid transportation, animal boarding, or locate an animal that escaped.  

Disasters happen, and often people cannot prepare. Hurricanes usually have some warning, but gaining housing and especially animal boarding outside the impact area is often tricky. Fires sometimes have enough warning to have bags packed, and trailer hitched, but they are unpredictable. Even major flooding can come on quite rapidly, such as it did at Willow Valley Farms in 2019. As those who suffer damage and loss work to rebuild, they need our support more than ever. “Could have, would have, should have” is much less effective than “What can I do?” Sarah says that “Disasters reveal who you are and who your friends are.” I hope that it reveals for the better in all of us. 

Bucks to Rebuild: 

Originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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