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Cows are starving to death amid California's winter weather rampage. Emergency helicopter hay drops could save them.

California braces for major flooding
New storm that could melt California's snowpack has the state bracing for flooding 02:49

The deluge of winter storms battering California with exceptional amounts of snow and rain has made traveling difficult, if not impossible. The poor conditions have also left cattle "starving" and "snowed in," and with ranchers unable to get to them, officials have found a way to try and save them – "Operation Hay Drop."

Humboldt County, a coastal area in Northern California, is under a local emergency because of the winter storms, which the sheriff's office said have caused significant snow, "impassable roadways, downed trees...mudslides, damaged structures and dead livestock," among other things. Conditions are so bad that the impacts are "exhausting and exceeding available county resources," the sheriff's office said on Wednesday

The recent storms have only added to the burden of residents in the county, who are still recovering from earthquakes in December and January that left nearly 100 structures unsafe to occupy and hundreds of others needing safety repairs. 

Now with several feet of snow and more recent damage throughout the community, taking care of cattle – a major livestock industry in the county – is not just more difficult, but dangerous. Sheriff William Honsal urged residents on Tuesday to "stay home" and avoid travel when at all possible. 

"We've had some unprecedented weather over the last two weeks and we've received multiple reports of cattle dying off because ranchers cannot get to their cows due to impassable roadways," he said. "These cattle are an economic driver, they're starving and they're calving right now. So all these things necessitate some drastic measures."  

Those measures include employing a method that was used in the '80s when there was a similar situation – delivering hay to the stranded cattle by dropping it from the sky. 

Diana Totten, Southern Humboldt-Area Fire Chief, said that as of Tuesday, about 30 ranchers have reached out to the county for help. The hay is paid for by ranchers who need it for their animals, and then Cal Fire and the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay work to deliver it via helicopter. 

The plan was approved on Sunday, and soon after, crews were able to start dropping it into remote fields filled with cattle. On Thursday, Cal Fire said that crews have made at least eight trips and flown for at least seven hours to drop off about 3 1/2 tons of hay to stranded cows. 

As of Friday, the area remains under a winter weather advisory by NOAA as a strong atmospheric river continues to lash the state. Humboldt is expected to get up to 3 more inches of snow Friday and could see wind gusts of up to 70 mph. More snow and rain are expected in the coming days. The county's Office of Emergency Services has also warned that a warm rain system forecast for next week could cause flooding.

"We are still recovering from an earthquake, the winter storms in December and it's been raining or snowing for about a month now. So the impact to our whole community has been drastic," Sheriff Honsal said. "...We won't know until the snow melts how many cattle have died due to these conditions. But I know this for certain, if we don't act, there's going to be way more that do die and it will be a catastrophe for our county."

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