Farmfront Board Member

Jenny Schweigert

In the wake of a new season of wildfires in the American West, many are looking for solutions. One of our own, Jenny Schweigert, offers some wisdom on the top as well as her own experiences.

In the summer of 2018, our family traveled through Colorado to my cousin’s wedding in Steamboat Springs. That initial sight of mountains far in the distance changed the tone in the van. Our bored and grumpy kids were full of excitement and anticipation to see the landscape up close. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived at the front range, the sun had set. There is something about driving those first 30 miles west into the Rockies. 

Our adventure

This year, we planned accordingly on our way to Steamboat, allowing the kids to see favorite towns, like Georgetown in the daylight. As we drove west out of Denver, it became hazy. One of the kids made a comment about those clouds resembling smoke. A midwesterner, I nonchalantly shook that notion off and said that we were at high enough elevations to be in the clouds.

Shortly thereafter, we began to see flashing signs stating the interstate was closed. “Construction,” I replied. It was in those next few miles I realized, my son was correct. The sun was attempting to peek through the smoke, providing an eerily picture of the unknown. At this point, you may likely be yelling at the screen telling me the interstate was closed because of a wildfire. Perfectly alright; although I wouldn’t admit it at the time, you are correct.

Driving a Fire Filled Passion

This became a theme along our adventures in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. We do bring energy wherever we roam, normally not in the likes of wildfires. Yet, there we were. The next day we actually drove through a wildfire. Firefighters watching small billows of smoke on one side of the highway, while others fought hot flames on the other side.

We arrived at the ranch we were visiting in Wyoming, the talk around wildfires was as common and calm as tornadoes in Illinois. Ranches throughout the U.S. may find themselves in a situation where they are able to lease ground from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). This provides grazing areas for cattle and sheep, while also leaving fertilizer in the form of their feces. One major difference at this year’s visit was signs explaining the forest was being cut down in places.

This was my second visit to the ranch. Near the lake up in the mountains, we found larger signs and encountered a tourist who was clearly upset by the cutting down of trees. It wasn’t natural, she noted. Without the experience or knowledge of a rancher working in the forest, I decided to listen and observe. The following day my ranching friend took us to an area where the Forest Service was actively “cleaning” up the forest. Learning more about wildfires could be akin to my passion for food systems.

Wildfires Affect the Midwest

When we arrived home from our trip we learned the midwest would be affected by fires burning near our travels and from California {incredible photo reel}, which was hit significantly. In the Bay Area alone, there were 350 active fires. Colorado continues to fight the largest wildfire to date. What’s more, year after year, there are historic fires such as the Paradise California fire in 2019 or the Rhea Oklahoma fire in 2018; one which caught many off guard. You can read more on the fire, by clicking here and here. Fast forward to 2020, where we’ve experienced another active year.

Who, What, When, and Why Should You Care?

According to Oklahoma State University’s Cooperative Extension livestock marketing specialist, damage estimates (including lost feed, burnt fences, and livestock), reached $26.4 million from the Rhea and Camp 34 fires.

The LA Times reported that “The 2008 fires primed the land around Paradise to burn again, Lunder said, leaving both dead timber and open spaces for thick grass. It was as if the gun had been cocked.” Ten years later in November 2018, after years of ignoring warnings, the Camp fire in and around Paradise left 86 dead, with more than 13,900 homes destroyed. In July 2019, the population of Paradise was a scarce 90% lower following the fire – an economic hit that will likely last for some time.

Forbes reported in November 2018 that politics and policy compound major sources of fires – the non-management of fuel such as dead trees, controlled burns that create death traps. The concerns around controlled burns include reduced air quality and environmentalists blocking in an effort to conserve various species of wildlife. In the photo above you’ll notice the goal is to clear old trees from the Wyoming and Utah

Forest, reducing the speed at which fires can spread and allowing ranchers to move livestock to other areas. Although the tourist was disgusted at the clearing of the forest, essentially the action can save lives.

In an attempt to protect the campus of Pepperdine University uses specific procedures during wildfires. These proactive measures help tremendously in the reduction of costs following a fire. These include but are not limited by clearing brushes least 200-feet from campus buildings. Campus buildings and landscapes are constructed with fire-resistant materials whenever possible and procedures in case of a fire are constantly practiced.


My biggest takeaway? Communication, communication, communication. People need to know why prescribing burns are beneficial. We’d love to hear your take-away on the post. Drop us a note in the comments or shoot an email letting us know your ideas!



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