Hundreds of California cattle feared hurt, dead as massive Rim Fire scorches region

The monstrous California wildfire that has scorched an area larger than New York City doesn't just loom over hundreds of homes — it's also threatening one of the cornerstones of the regional economy: cattle.

Many of the thousands of grass-fed cows who have grazed on lush land in the Stanislaus National Forest — where the massive fire sparked Aug. 17 — are now feared displaced, injured or dead, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

As ranch hands deal with their potentially decimated stock — and with the future of grazing in the forest area unclear — the regional cattle industry may take a big hit, according to the newspaper.

"They go out every day, gathering the cows they can find, the ones that have made it into the green areas," Susan Forbes, a national forest staffer, told the Chronicle. "They're finding pockets of livestock and concentrating on removing them as fast as they can."

Forbes told the newspaper that the blaze devastated 12 of 36 grazing grounds in the park. Herds of cattle are now scattered over thousands of acres — making evacuation efforts a huge challenge.

The Golden State accounts for 7.4 percent of the U.S. national revenue for livestock and livestock products. It's also the number one state in cash farm receipts, making up 11.6 percent of the U.S. total, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Cattle and calves were California's fifth leading commodity two years ago, according to CDFA data.

Meanwhile, crews battling the so-called Rim Fire made significant gains over Sunday night and throughout Monday, officials said.

The fire was 70 percent contained Monday night, a jump from 45 percent Sunday night, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

On Monday, crews made progress by conducting burnout operations and slowed the progress of the flames from firefighting aircraft, according to a fire incident report.

”Last night is when it all really tied together,” Andrea Capps, spokeswoman for the Rim Fire command center, told Reuters. “It’s looking really good over there right now. They’re calling that containment line secure.”

And yet despite the boost in containment, Capps said analysts estimate it could take until Sept. 20 to fully contain the Rim Fire, according to Reuters.

“The majority of the containment lines will probably be really strong by the middle, end of this week, but they just want to give themselves enough time to make sure it’s fully contained,” Capps told the wire service.

Dan Bastion, a spokesman for the multiagency fire management team said cooler temperatures and higher humidity allowed crews to get an advantage on the fire overnight. “Rain is good,” Capps said, “but the winds that come with the pressure changes with the thunderstorms could lead to some unpredictable (fire) behavior.”

The so-called Rim Fire now spans over 368 square miles, or 235,841 acres, making it the fourth-largest blaze in modern California history. It surpasses a 1932 fire in Ventura County, according to officials.

The fire threatens some 4,500 homes, although many of those structures are "not in imminent danger," Bastion said. Some 11 residences have already burned down, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Authorities are investigating the cause of the blaze, but the possibility that it was started by an illegal marijuana growing operation was recently raised by a fire chief in Tuolomne County.

Elisha Fieldstadt of NBC News, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.