PINE VALLEY, Nev. — LeRoy and Sandy Sestanovich ran their eyes over the Nevada range land his family has ranched for half a century. It looked like a charred piece of toast.
There was no life, only the blackened skeletons of juniper trees and the scorched stumps of sagebrush. Up a canyon lay the remains of one of their bulls, a dried-out hide draped over bones in a hauntingly stark image of death.
In what is by far the worst fire season on record in this arid state, some 1.6 million acres of northern Nevada burned this summer, an area twice the size of Rhode Island.
No lives were lost and few buildings were destroyed. But federal grazing land used by scores of ranchers was incinerated, along with food and shelter for all manner of wildlife.
"People just don't understand unless they've been out there," said Chris Healy, public information officer for the Nevada Division of Wildlife. "They also think in a couple of years it's going to be OK. But you know what? It's not."
Steep canyon slopes are nude, ready to send mudslides and flood waters onto roads and valley ranches during winter storms.
Some 1,500 wild horses are being rounded up for adoption or removal to other areas because there is nothing for them to eat on much of their traditional winter range. Dust storms have caused two highway deaths. Hundreds of miles of fence need repair and livestock water systems need to be fixed.
So many acres burned that federal authorities can't get their hands on enough of some seed types to replant the baked earth.
And vast stretches of Nevada scrubland are sitting empty, waiting for the invasion of cheatgrass, a central Asian plant that is slowly transforming parts of the Great Basin, replacing the classic gray-green of sagebrush with brown, dried-out stalks that burn like tinder, setting the stage for more huge wildfires.
"It's an ecologic disaster and it's an open-ended one," federal research scientist Jim Young warned of the steady creep of cheatgrass across the scrubland. "There's a groundswell that something has to be done. But nobody knows what to do."
Young, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said that in the 1960s, less than 1% of the state's 19 million acres of sagebrush land had cheatgrass growing on it. Now he estimates a quarter of that acreage is dominated by the exotic grass, which was introduced to Nevada around the turn of the century.
Cheatgrass is largely blamed for the accelerating cycle of wildfires in Nevada. The amount of federal Bureau of Land Management acreage burned since 1990 is more than all the land burned during the previous 44 years.
The worst of this year's firestorms swept over the northern part of the state in early August, when dry lightning strikes ignited the desert floor and hot dry winds pushed long fronts of flames across the scrubland and up into the mountains.
100-Plus Wildfires Overwhelmed Crews
At one point more than 100 wildfires were burning at the same time, overwhelming firefighters.
Blazes raged around the Sestanovich ranch in Pine Valley south of Carlin for five straight days. "I've never seen one that lasted that long and was that thorough. I really couldn't believe that it was keeping on like that," said LeRoy Sestanovich, 47.
Winds kept the fires away from his ranch buildings and his private, hay-producing acreage. But funnels of flame roared across the two federal grazing allotments on which he--and his father before him--have run cattle.
Three-quarters of the 25,000 acres of range land that he leases from the BLM is now utterly useless. Stripped bare of plant life, scrubland and juniper-studded hills he has roamed since childhood are barely recognizable to him.
Along with the bull, 14 calves and 17 cows burned to death. Others are still missing. "We just can't find them. We don't know if they burned," Sandy said as she, LeRoy and a University of Nevada extension agent drove slowly through the wasteland that used to feed 250 head of cattle.
The more than 200 cows and calves they saved by herding them down a wash ahead of the flames are now munching on a neighbor's allotment 15 miles away--at some expense. The Sestanoviches expect it will cost them roughly six times the monthly $1.35 they pay the BLM for each cow and her calf they run on their own allotments.
Selling Cattle to Pay for Hay
A bit to the north, in Carlin, fourth-grade teacher and rancher Rita Stitzel lost thousands of acres of her federal grazing allotments to the fires and predicts she will have to buy $20,000 to $30,000 worth of hay this winter to feed her herd. Like the Sestanoviches, she expects her operation to survive. "The good news is we've been there for 30 years, so we don't have a lot of debt," said Stitzel, who sold off 75 head of cattle to pay for the hay.