OR ranchers on the frontline

Oct 12, 2012

There’s smoke on the horizon.

Do you know where your cattle are?

Few calamities are as likely to fill a rancher with dread as the prospect of a range fire. Bob Skinner, a fifth-generation rancher from Jordan Valley, OR, knows the feeling all too well.

Skinner’s ranch is tucked into Oregon’s southeast corner, a sagestrewn, remote area of the High Desert dominated by Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holdings that are largely used for livestock grazing. The region has a long history of destructive range fires. But for years, according to Skinner, ranchers were shunted to the sidelines to spectate by BLM during firefighting operations, often while fire burnt through grazing permits, potentially injuring or destroying cattle, and threatening adjacent private land with valuable range, barns, hay and homes.

“When we had assets in danger, mainly livestock, the BLM absolutely stonewalled us from going out and helping with the fires, let alone even checking on the cattle,” related Skinner.

It was a case of simply not putting the pieces together. Local ranchers lacked professional training, but had excellent knowledge of terrain and roads, as well as a vested interested in putting out fires. BLM fire crews were trained, but had minimal knowledge of the area, and were often times understaffed. According to Skinner, neither ranchers nor the BLM had any confidence in the other’s ability to handle rangeland fires effectively. Mistrust and frustration occasionally boiled over into outrage, as when law enforcement was called in to prevent ranchers from entering grazing permits to recover cattle during a blaze.

“At that time, we were at absolute odds with the agency, because they felt like we didn’t know anything, and we felt like they didn’t know anything,” Skinner recalled. “It was a mess.”

Call those the bad old days. Thanks to a state-run program facilitated by the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF), Jordan Valley ranchers banded together in 2008 to form a Rangeland Fire Protection Association (RFPA), a non-profit firefighting agency trained and recognized by the state of Oregon. The move has given the ranchers entre into the public rangeland firefighting club, and turned the grim relationship with BLM into one of mutual respect and cooperation.

RFPAs are created and trained to fight fire on private and public rangeland, that is, non-forested land populated predominantly by grasses, sagebrush and juniper. They are distinct from “rural fire districts,” which are trained and equipped primarily to fight structure fires.

By forming an RFPA, what was previously a loose-knit group of neighbors effectively turned itself into a well-trained, well-equipped fire team. The Jordan Valley ranchers were provided with technical training, radio repeaters, fire engines, slip-in tank units for pickups, and other fire-fighting equipment free of charge, all courtesy of the RFPA program, which is run by ODF.

The ranchers also bring their own equipment and knowledge to the table.

“We have people, we have tankers, we have Caterpillers, we have graders,” explained Skinner. “But more than that …[w]e have people who know the terrain, and know where everything is, intimately.”

Gordon Foster is rangeland protection coordinator at ODF and oversees the RFPA program. According to Foster, ranchers significantly improve their ability to participate with BLM firefighting efforts as RF- PAs, since federal agencies are required to recognize RFPAs as a legitimate fire agency with a prescribed jurisdiction.

“It gives them more statutory authority to fight fire on public land,” explained Foster. “They become a duly authorized fire protection agency, recognized by the state.”

Foster has been instrumental in establishing a “mutual assistance agreement” between BLM and Oregon RFPAs to ensure that local firefighters are incorporated into planning and communications when a fire strikes.

According to Skinner, ranchers are now standing on the front lines with federal firefighters, and have significant authority under the RFPA to do what is necessary to stop fire on public, as well as private land.

“It’s totally changed,” observed Skinner. “We’re not at opposite ends of the mission, now. They’re all standing together, and talking. Everybody’s working together.”

This July, Jordan Valley RFPA members had the ultimate chance to test their firefighting chops when they coordinated with BLM on the massive Long Draw fire—at 557,441 acres, Oregon’s largest in a century. The blaze tore through southeastern Oregon between Jordan Valley, Burns and McDermitt, scorching more than 800 square miles of rangeland over the course of a week. RFPA firefighters spent many sleepless nights working to contain the rapidly moving blaze, and were ultimately credited with establishing an all important “anchor point” from which the rest of the fire could be attacked.

According to Foster, the contribution was significant.

“The people that came in on the (interagency) fire teams … credited the Rangeland Association with stopping that whole north end of the fire from Highway 95 clear to the Owyhee,” said Foster, who added that RFPA firefighters were given an award by the National Interagency team.

Jeff Pendleton, interagency incident commander on the Long Draw fire, concurred.

“They gave us a good foothold to work on the rest of it,” acknowledged Pendleton, who added that the rancher’s excellent grasp of the terrain was invaluable.

“What’s really nice is local knowledge,” Pendleton said. “They know where roads go in their part of the country, what the terrain’s like, where the waterholes are—all the things that are important to fighting fire.”

Skinner agreed. “That’s extremely important when you’re fighting fire in the black of the night, in the smoke,” said Skinner. “The agencies, for lack of a better term, they’re flying blind.”

Pendleton also pointed out another key advantage of a well-trained local rangeland fire district: rapid response. While it can often take hours, or even days for BLM to field a team of firefighters at the site of a blaze, local firefighters can usually arrive within an hour. The time advantage can mean the difference between a small fire of 10 acres, or a runaway wildfire consuming hundreds of thousands of acres.

“The RFPAs have been very effective in assisting with the initial attack phase with small fires, keeping them from getting big,” observed Pendleton. “That needs to be noted as a real value of those associations.”

Rapid response means less rangeland destroyed. This not only benefits ranching operations, but saves important habitat for desert species such as sage grouse, mule deer, elk and antelope. But RFPA’s rapid response abilities also benefit taxpayers, who end up footing the bill when range fires burn out of control. The Long Draw fire alone cost $4.1 million to put out, and BLM has applied for $24 million to restore the range.

None of the enormous cost of the Long Draw fire went to pay RFPA firefighters, however. Ranchers serving on the associations receive no pay for helping to defend the public’s land and wildlife from the threat of wildfire. “It’s our time, our pick-ups, our graders, our Cats, our everything,” says Skinner. But simply having the opportunity to preserve the range, both for grazing their cattle, protecting their private property, and for its own sake, is apparently compensation enough.

Although the first RFPA in Oregon was formed in the mid-sixties, only a handful existed until a few years ago. But now the idea is catching on. There are currently 14 registered associations, with two more awaiting final approval. And they just keep coming. Following this year’s record fire losses, more and more communities are contacting ODF to set up a rangeland fire agency.

“People hear about it, and say ‘We want to do that, too,’ ” said Foster. “We put together brochures, and we had all kinds of things ready to go, but we haven’t had to do that. The calls come quicker than we can go to them.”

Interest in rangeland fire associations is slowly spreading outside of Oregon, as well. Foster recently helped put together an RFPA based in Mountain Home, ID, a national hotspot for rangeland fires. But while one or two other states may have similar programs, Foster knows of none that is pushing the envelope like Oregon. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent