Smokey The Steer: The Surprising Role of Cattle in Community Wildfire Management


Jordy Thibeault, Cranbrook B.C. © Columbia Basin Trust

Keith Manders clearly remembers the night that wildfires raged close to his home. “My wife looked out the window at four a.m. and saw flames coming down the mountain,” he recalls quietly. “You can imagine how we felt.” Fortunately for the rancher from Summerland, B.C., their house was spared, as was most of the crown land that Keith uses seasonally to graze his cattle. The experience reinforced what he and other local ranchers had known for years—that cattle can be effective tools to mitigate wildfire behaviour.

“I brought the local fire chief up here and he couldn’t believe it,” said Keith. “He saw the effectiveness of what we can do when cattle graze the pastures.”

On crown land and areas surrounding communities, tree stands have been thinned to reduce the risk of large wildfire events. However, with fewer trees, more sunlight reaches the forest floor, resulting in increased grasses and shrubs. Known as fine fuels, dry grasses and shrubs can become a volatile and easily ignited source for fires. Annual growth of grasses and shrubs without any removal will continually increase the fine fuel load and lead to increased potential wildfire intensity over time.

That is exactly where local ranchers saw the natural fit—grass feeds fire, but it also feeds cattle. Under the right conditions, fine fuels can contribute to what is known as a rolling crown fire—an out-of-control event that is impossible to manage. By eating a certain percentage of shrubs and grasses, grazing can successfully turn, slow and even stop fires. When fires do happen, the goal is to lower their intensity so that resources can be deployed successfully. By removing grasses during the growing season, the risk is reduced.

“Grass feeds fire, but it also feeds cattle.”

After the extreme wildfire years of 2017 and 2018, the Government of B.C. approached the British Columbia Cattlemen’s Association to organize pilot projects, researching the effectiveness of grazing cattle in forested areas surrounding at-risk communities. Creating solutions to manage wildfire risk in these interfaces is especially important to preserve lives, homes, and infrastructure where other methods, like prescribed burns, are not feasible. Although fine fuel reduction is the project’s primary objective, other goals include maintaining important values such as wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and ecological integrity.

Jordy Thibeault, a local rancher from just outside Cranbrook, is happy to participate in the pilot project for the community. Each spring for a few weeks, he brings his herd of cattle to graze the crown land bordering the town. The cows reduce the amount of fuel available, but they also improve the health of the remaining grass. “They utilize the grass for a shorter period of time and then the grass gets a longer restoration,” Jordy says. “It stays greener in a vegetative state longer, and so it’s less likely to burn.”

To Jordy, it’s a win-win situation. “We definitely have a role in protecting the community,” he says. “If you came in here with a machine, like a lawnmower, all it would be is a cost-output. We have a tool that can remove this fire danger while producing food to feed the community and add benefit to society.”

© Tyler Zhao

Cattle on the Land, Beef on Your Plate

As one of nature’s most nutrient-dense foods, beef is recommended as a protein food option in Canada’s food guide Eat Well plate. Just 100 grams of cooked beef provides 35 grams of protein, which helps build muscle and maintain healthy bones, 79 percent of your daily value of zinc, which boosts your body’s immune system, and 100 percent of your daily value of vitamin B12, so you can concentrate and feel energized, all at only 245 calories. Beef is also a source of vitamin B6 and iron, both of which support increased brain function.

It’s important to eat a balanced plate that contains fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and protein-rich foods like beef. While protein from plant sources can be a great source of fibre, beef provides iron, a widespread deficiency in many infants and children. In fact, pairing protein-rich beef with the daily suggested amount of fruit, vegetables, and grains helps increase the iron absorbed by beans and other plants by 180 percent, making it a natural way to increase your iron intake without the use of supplements.

When Canadian beef reaches your table, you can rest assured that you will be fuelling your body with protein, iron, zinc, and other nutrients essential for good health.

Too Close to Home, Wild Fire Movie, Canada Beef,
Too Close to Home Movie Poster © Courtesy of Canada Beef

Too Close to Home

Too Close to Home is a short documentary brought to you by a group of dedicated ranchers, researchers, and Canadian filmmakers. The film highlights the stories of three communities currently utilizing targeted grazing for wildfire risk reduction. For more information about the film, visit

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Pastures and grasslands used for beef cattle provide many ecosystem benefits. Stewardship of the land is essential to the families that raise beef cattle.


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