As Coal Hollow Fire ceases to grow, ranchers continue to search for lost cows

September 3, 2018

Over 30,000 acres of land, 468 unaccounted for cattle and five ranchers, along with family and friends, to look for them.

That is the reality Andy Neves and the rest of the Lake Fork Cattleman’s Association have been facing since the Coal Hollow Fire was sparked by lightning Aug. 4. “It’s a big job,” said Neves of the task.

The Neves family resides in the unincorporated community of Birdseye, which lies in the southeastern edge of Utah County within Spanish Fork Canyon. The day the fire began, Andy was traveling between Dairy Fork and Lake Fork roads pushing cattle he found near the road back towards the mountains where there was better grass and feed.

The five primary ranchers of the association rotate cattle from year to year among the five regional allotments within the canyon. “From about middle of June to the middle of October, we have the grazing rights on these allotments,” explained Neves.

While Neves was working with the cattle, he came across a fire engine and some wildlands firefighting crews.

He stopped and talked to the firefighters, and he explained that the crews seemed cavalier when they said that there was a report of smoke in the Coal Hollow area. “I didn’t think much of it,” said Neves.

Later that evening, things changed.

“That night is when I got the call that it had blown up and gotten really crazy,” Neves recounted. Though the fire wasn’t directly threatening his allotments yet, the next morning Neves and his family went up toward the Mill Fork allotment to begin gathering cattle.

“We gathered everything we could out of there, and pushed the cattle into Dairy Fork and over into Lake Fork,” said Neves. “But our numbers were still way short. We didn’t have everything that we knew should have been in there.”

The next day, the Neves family went back up to gather more cattle, but the fire had jumped to Dairy Fork Road and into the Mill Fork area. “It burned both the right- and left-hand sides of Mill Fork where we knew our cattle were, but there was really nothing that we could do,” said Neves.

Over the next few days, Andy and other ranchers ventured while trying to stay reasonably safe to their allotments to gather cattle.

“We were able to gather about 350 head initially within those first nine days,” said Neves. “There’s about 100 head of cattle that are still on the mountain.”

Near Neves’ home, rescued cows chew on hay within a corral. Although safe, the cows are crowded and not eating their usual summertime diet.

“They’re not gaining weight like they would on the mountain,” said Neves.

When cattle are grazing on their mountain allotments in the summer, they’re gaining weight at the optimum rate of the season. Pregnant cows also eat healthier while on pasture, which factor into the health of their calves when they’re born. The more a calf weighs, the more it brings at sale. It’s those pounds per day where ranchers make the bulk of their annual earnings.

With cows being corralled for approximately two of the roughly five months they usually spend out to pasture, Neves’ herd isn’t bulking up like it normally would.

“It’s huge; it’s devastating actually,” said Neves. “The only way we can make this work and profitable for ourselves is through that summer grazing time.”

Besides the flames, the hay the cattle have been fed while corralled has been in short supply and very costly.

“In Utah, we were hit pretty hard with the drought, so hay production is in some places cut down by half or more,” said Neves. “You can actually truck the hay in from Idaho cheaper than you can get it around here.”

With cows corralled sooner than expected, ranchers are now cutting into the hay reserves they had set aside for the winter season.

“At this point, we’re in survival mode,” said Neves. “We’re not looking to pad our bank accounts.”

Ranchers’ horses have taken a hit, too.

Once into the mountains, horses have been the primary mode of transportation ranchers have used to traverse the rough landscape looking for cows. “Even horses that are in good shape, if they’re saddled and ridden for that many hours a day, it takes a toll on them,” said Neves.

Usually, horses are gradually worked into shape in the fall when cows are herded from pastures to corrals. This time of year, Neves said horses are typically ridden four to five hours a day.

“We’ve been waking up really early every single morning and getting up on the mountain and riding for 10, 12 hours a day,” he said.

In the latter days of the month, rains swept through Utah, helping firefighters combat the fire.

“Since the day that we got that first storm, we decided that the fire was contained enough that we didn’t need to keep gathering and pulling off the mountain,” said Neves. “Now we’re seeing what’s there and we’re not necessarily in a rush to get everything corralled and back home like we were.”

Ranchers and the U.S. Forest Service have been working together to come up with plans of action for the cattle as the fire has burned. Typically, the two groups determine when to rest certain allotments and move cattle elsewhere to keep ecosystems healthy, but the fire has called for re-evaluation.

“The Forest Service has said that they’d let us take 30 percent of our cattle to the Blind Canyon allotment,” said Neves. Though it isn’t a cure-all solution, Neves remarked that it certainly helps. “The forest service has been working really well with us during this fire, helping us get through it,” said Neves.

Currently, the plan is to keep cows up on unburned allotments until food and water runs out, rescue cows from partially-burned allotments and move them to unburned allotments and keep cows in place that are currently corralled.

The Manti-La Sal National Forest has reported that four cows and two calves have died, but Neves is unsure of his personal cattle losses among the greater herd of the association. “It’s still likely that 25 percent of mine could be dead,” he said.

Besides the obvious stress and frustration of the scenario, the wildfire has taken an emotional toll on Neves.

“We’ve raised these cattle since they were babies,” said Neves. “Some of these cattle, the older cows, they helped pay to get my wife and I through college. We know them, some of them have names, and they’re a part of the family. Somebody who doesn’t understand this lifestyle might think that’s a little crazy, but it’s sad for us.”

Today, according to an official of the Manti-La Sal National Forest, the Coal Hollow Fire is no longer growing, but the threat is not yet extinguished.

“Don’t underestimate the fact that we have hot spots,” said Rosann Fillmore, a public affairs officer with the Manti-La Sal National Forest. “There’s still plenty of fire there, it’s staying low on the forest floor. We’re going into a hot-dry period, which may lead to more heat on the fire.”

The fire has burned 29,912 acres and stood at 80 percent containment, as of the final incident update Tuesday.

“The fire is not growing at this point,” said Fillmore. “As far as the perimeter, it is the same. Usually we’d called that contained, but we have some spots that we can’t directly attack.”

As the Coal Hollow Fire continues to pose a threat and the seasons begin to shift, Neves and other ranchers are doing what they can to preserve their herds and make ends meet. Neves explained that there’s an ebb and flow to ranching. “There’s good years and bad years, and hopefully we can make it to a good year,” he said.

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