When Everything Around You Is Burning

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S1: In the last few weeks, Megan Brown has noticed her animals have started to cough. Meghan’s rancher raises cattle and hogs in northern California. It’s the air that’s making her animals sick or more precisely, the smoke. Megan’s just a few miles from the north complex fires which were touched off by a lightning storm back in August.

S2: We’ve only had one clear day for about a month. So our house, it’s like fog. It’s just everything is enveloped in this smoky fog. And like the water troughs for my animals where they drink all covered in a layer of ash, our vehicles just covered in ash. I have a garden and it’s just white. Everything’s covered in ash. And it is surreal. It sounds apocalyptic. It is. It’s like I feel like I’m on Mars.

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S3: Megan is the kind of rancher who will tell you all about the swimming pool she built for her pigs, she grew up on this farm, on land. Her family worked for 170 years. She knows the place so well that she can tell what season it is by smell. The fall, she says, smells like tar weed and fire season that has a smell to it smells like campfire.

S4: And unfortunately, these fires have ruined camping and campfire for me. Like, it just smells like fear now.

S1: When I reached Meghan, she was in the middle of making meatloaf for her aunt and uncle that helped her get some gear out of the fire zone, but for the time being, she was staying put, watching, waiting, keeping the animals comfortable, even though what’s happening now is scary. Making grew up with fire says she wants people to know the fire’s always been there. It’s the scale that’s changed.

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S2: It’s so dry that when I was a girl, I wasn’t allowed to ride my horses in this this ranch with horse shoes on their feet because the metal on the horseshoe would it would strike a rock and it would have sparks and you could start a fire just by riding your horse.

S1: Do you remember your first fire that you were aware of as a girl?

S4: Not really, because, I mean, smaller fires in this area were pretty common. You know, I remember like going to my aunts and uncles and and Chico because they had a swimming pool and it was like a big deal to go swimming and we’d go swimming and then look back towards the ranch and there’d be smoke, but never anything like now. It was just teeny little grass fires that they put out really quickly. It sounds like you kind of learn to live with fire a little bit. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Fire is is natural to California. I mean, there are pine trees here that they will not reseed themselves unless there is fire. So we need it. It’s essential, but it’s just changed. It’s become a monster.

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S3: Today on the show, Megan’s been trying to understand how this monster got so out of control to save her ranch and to save her animals, it’s meant rethinking some pretty basic assumptions she’d made about climate change, for one. Now she’s trying to bring her neighbors along with her. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: Megan’s family has planned their seasons around fires for a long time now. They actually have a couple of ranches and when it gets hot, they move their animals to the irrigated fields to keep them safe and to mimic natural grazing patterns. It’s only in the last couple of years that Megan has had to think about evacuating due to a fire.

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S4: Yeah, well, I’ve been through three pretty major fires in the past five years. And after the first fire, the first fire was really, really bad because it burned almost four million dollars worth of damage on this ranch, on my home.

S1: That was a Cherokee fire in 2017.

S2: Yep. And, you know, I sat at the end of my driveway and just watched my childhood home burn up. I mean, not my actual home, but where I grew up and the barns and the corrals and the fences and my pigs were still here. And I thought that they had burned up to but my guardian dog had rounded them all up and put them in a barn. And Cal Fire managed to save the barn. And they later the next morning, they call it, you know, I went up there and was able to see them and they said, hey, we tried to, you know, get your dog and save your dog. And she wouldn’t move out of the barn. And I was like, she was protecting her pigs. So that was the one happy thing was all the pigs and my dog lived. So it’s kind of amazing. But yeah, once you see your ear, you know, basically your home burnt up, you don’t stick around the next time, you know, you realize it’s very dangerous and terrifying and you just want to flee for your life.

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S1: So how do you and your neighbors prepare for the fire season? Because every year, you know it’s coming and now, you know, it’s getting worse. Can you just walk me through what you do?

S5: Yeah, the first thing we do is we move our cattle. We just get them out of this county and we move them up to the hills where they are on irrigated pasture. And it’s a lot harder for that to catch on fire this summer. The fire did threaten that community up in Plumas County, Quincy area and then, you know, made it all the way down here to Butte County.

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S1: So you’re saying the fire threatened area where usually you didn’t have fire before?

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S5: Yeah, yeah. But we do firebreaks. We graze down fields, so there’s just not as much fire loads.

S1: So that means the fire can’t move through.

S5: It can move through, but it’s not going to be as hot. It’s not going to have as much fuel. Cal Fire can get breaks. And so they’ll bring their big heavy equipment in and do big lines in the dirt. So there’s just dust, just dirt and you can’t burn dirt. But when you have these fires that are so hot and big that they’re creating, you know, fire, tornadoes and their own weather patterns, you know, you leave space around your house where nothing’s touching it. You know, the wind is so hot and so quick it it can get through those lines, the defensible space. You know, that’s what our fire safe council tells us. You know, you need defensible space, but you look at these homes that have burned and some of them, you know, when the campfire happened in paradise, burned up, they had defensible space, but it was just so much there was nothing they could do.

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S1: Yeah, it sounds like the first time you really evacuated was just a couple of years ago.

S4: And I’m wondering, when was it that you realized, like, I’ve lived with fire for years now, but I think I have to leave the campfire when paradise when I was sitting here in my backyard looking at the smoke and it suddenly turned black and I knew that was the town of paradise and I knew that this was not normal. You know, this is not how it’s supposed to be.

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S5: Here we have fire and that’s great and we need it. But we don’t have fires that last for months and burn this much, this extended vicious fire season.

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S1: It’s not the only thing Megan notices changing in the environment around her, one that really, really freaks me out.

S2: The worst are the grasshoppers, the grasshoppers, grasshoppers, like biblical grasshoppers. And last year and this year, so much so that like we’ve had to sell cattle that we normally keep, like I usually keep about 60 head of heifers. Those are cows that haven’t given birth yet. And that’s how I keep my herd growing and replace old cows and keep new genetics. But because of the grasshoppers, I’ve had to sell them. Well, that why? Well, a grasshopper who does it, like five pounds of grasshoppers, can eat the same amount of grass as a six hundred pound animal.

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S1: So you just don’t have the grass for the cattle.

S4: Yeah. And we’ve we’ve always had the grass, like we’ve always, you know, my my grandma I remember my grandpa telling me you can run, you know, fifty pair of cows in this field. That’s not a thing anymore.

S1: How do you connect what’s happening with the grasshoppers to what’s happening with the fire?

S2: Well, in our long history of running the ranch, this has never, ever happened before. Like my dad remembers one really bad grass. Hopper, you’re back in the 70s, and in addition to the grasshoppers, we’ve had a flood and a drought all in all in five years and again in the long history of the ranch, that’s never happened.

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S1: Macon doesn’t think the fires and the grasshoppers are coincidences either. To her, they point in one cataclysmic direction, climate change. But her views on global warming have evolved over the years. And she says that’s pretty rare in her farming community.

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S4: You know what’s weird is like the scientists that aren’t in agriculture, you know, are like, yeah, this is climate change, this is happening.

S2: And with agriculture, with the groups within agriculture, they don’t seem to be talking about it as much. I mean, they a lot of them don’t even, you know, believe it’s real. And it’s so incredibly frustrating for me because I feel like I’m in ground zero and I’m like sending up the alarm being like, you guys, this is serious. You know, your lives are going to be affected. Let’s let’s affect some change. Come on. Come on. And they’re, you know, quoted in articles with me. Well, we just don’t believe it’s a thing. So it’s kind of a slap in the face.

S1: Have you been in meetings or gatherings with neighbors or maybe meetings with Farm Bureau folks where you’ve tried to say, hey, let’s talk about climate change and how that’s impacting what we do and what happens?

S4: I talk about it a lot on social media because I’ve kind of stopped going to farm bureau meetings in my area just because of this kind of stuff, what would happen when you’d go? It’s just really uncomfortable for me. I got pulled into a cattlemen’s meeting a couple of years ago because I was kind of talking about some things and ended up with me in tears. And it’s just not something I want to put myself back into.

S1: It sounds like that meeting was really intense. Did climate change end up coming into it to.

S2: No, that was before climate change was even was I mean, that was back when I still was a climate change denier myself.

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S1: Whoa, what changed your mind? Living what I’ve lived through, huh? When you were a climate change denier, how did you see what was happening in the world? I’m curious because I don’t know that I’ve ever talked to anyone who’s changed their mind about climate change. So I’m really curious about your path.

S4: Yeah, well, OK, so, you know, I assumed that, you know. Oh, yeah. The Earth is probably always changing and heating up and cooling and that’s normal. And then, you know, more science got presented and then the fires happened and all this other stuff happened. And really, I had to like. Take take a moment, take a deep breath and, you know, go to people that were smarter than I am and listen to the science and listen to them. And yeah, I’m a firm believer now it’s happening.

S1: And yeah, yeah, I can I can sense in your voice that you have like, the strength of conviction of, I don’t know, like a convert, you know, someone who’s come to understand something. And usually when you come to understand something, you just want to share it with others, you know, and yeah, you’ve lived in this community your whole life. You must talk to neighbors about what you see. And I’m sure you have credibility with them. They’ve known you a long time. And, you know, you are someone who may have shared perspectives with them on a number of subjects before this. So I’m curious how those conversations go.

S4: Um, you know, I try and have them. And a lot of the times I get dismissed. I do have neighbors that I do talk to. And we are one particular neighbor runs a whole branch from us and we’re very enmeshed and we work together a lot. But I haven’t really used the word climate change around them. I don’t you know, I hold it. You don’t you can’t even use the word. Yeah, I, I, you know, I just by who I am, by being so political and being so loud, I make agriculture uncomfortable. So I’m trying I’m trying a new a new way of not quite being so loud, but, you know, acknowledging what’s happening but not using the right words. Because if that’s how I have to act to get change to happen, OK, I will not use the words. And, you know, if that makes it more palatable for my neighbors or for my industry, I guess that’s what I have to do. Wow. So what do you say? Instead of climate change, you just kind of blame it on each thing. You know, it’s like, oh, the fire, oh, the grasshopper.

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S6: And I’m hoping, you know, they’re going to start connecting the dots in their own head. And then, you know, in a year or two, I can I can use the the term climate change, but we’ll see.

S7: You know, you don’t sound like a shrinking violet, you sound politically active, like, yes, I’m actually still a registered Republican, you know, as AG.

S4: That’s what we are. But I’m very much like, you know, not really anymore. Like, I want people to be taken care of. I want climate change addressed and my Republican leaders are not doing that.

S1: Wow. So when you call the people who represent you, either at your state capitol or in Washington to talk about what you’re dealing with, what do you tell them and what do they say to you?

S4: Well, they no longer answer my phone calls or call me back. So I now just mainly stick to Twitter and Facebook to communicate with them. It’s just it’s so frustrating. And all I can do, I feel like, is just scream into the social media abyss. But fortunately, I’ve done that and I’ve gotten some opportunities. I’ve got to write for The Washington Post. I got to talk to you. I got to write for Modern Farmer. So even though they might not be listening, other people are. And I’m I’m slowly seeing, you know, people that have been through fires and been to these floods. They’re coming to the dark side. They’re coming to Megan’s side and they’re starting to pay attention to what I’m saying. So, you know, and when I first started, you know, talking to my politicians on the threads, on the social media threads, it was just kind of me dissenting. And now there’s there’s more of us.

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S1: Hmm. What would success look like when you’re talking to these politicians? Like, what are you hoping they’ll propose?

S4: You know, right now, I’m not really asking for much right now. I’m just asking them to acknowledge it’s a thing that’s happening. If I could get that, you know, I think then I’d be just a great starting point, a jumping off point where we say, yeah, OK, man made climate change exists. And then let’s drag in some scientists, let’s drag in some indigenous people, let’s drag in some ranchers and farmers and let’s sit at a table together where we’re not fighting, where we are aiming for this common goal. And let’s write some legislation. I firmly believe that if we got all Farm Bureau and all these ag groups together and said, OK, what some policy that we can craft. I mean, you know, other countries have done it. You know, we know that there’s a science out there. You know, let’s just start. That’s the thing we haven’t even started. I feel like it’s just still like, oh, no, it doesn’t exist. Oh, this is just an abnormal year. It’s so frustrating, it’s just so frustrating.

S1: You know, I listen to a story like yours and I just can’t help but wonder why you stay like, what is it that’s keeping you on your land?

S4: That’s a really good question. And I’ve had this conversation with my mom. She’s like, I don’t really want to live here anymore. And I get that. But I also have to point out to her that our neighboring towns, you know, town has been evacuated. So your point is like, where would we go? Yeah, yeah. I mean, we’d have to leave the state. And, you know, each each region of our country is seeming to have its own challenges, you know, floods and hurricanes and things. But for me, I mean, I’m the sixth generation to live here. Like, I swore to my grandpa that I would keep this ranch going as a small child. I made that promise. And, you know, I’ve lived here my entire life. I work with my parents. I love this lifestyle. I love animals. I love what I do. I’m really passionate about it. And and I would rather stand here and fight for it than just give up. But I do realize I’ve been through a whole lot and I’m really resilient. But I’m also getting tired. I’m tired of evacuating. I’m tired of fighting with my industry. I’m tired of asking my officials to do something. So at some point, you know, I may have to have a moment where I, I reevaluate my priorities. But right now I am I’m stuck in here. I’m I’m here for my community and I’m here for the ranch.

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S1: What do you think it would take to convince you to leave?

S4: That’s a really good question. I probably have to lose my house and probably have to lose some more animals. I think once that happened, I’d probably had enough.

S1: Yeah.

S4: I hope that doesn’t happen, it really doesn’t happen, and I’m I’m doing my best, you know, to make sure it doesn’t happen. I’ve changed all the landscaping around the house. I’m, you know, much more aware. And, yeah, we’re just going to I’m playing it by ear, but I’m you know, I have a college education.

S7: So if I do need to change and get a job and and leave this life, you know, I can I just don’t want to. Megan Brown, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you. Really sincerely from the bottom of my heart. Thank you so much for giving me this platform. It really means a lot to me.

S8: Megan Brown is a sixth generation rancher over in Butte County, California. She blogs at the Beef Jar Dotcom, and that’s the show. What Next is produced by Mary Wilson, Jason de Leon, Daniel Hewett and Ilana Schwartz. Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery lead us each and every day. And I’m Mary Harris to see what I’m up to. But I’m not talking into a microphone. Go find me on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk or just catch me back here tomorrow.