Fire-fighting ranchers protect the land
Western ranchers are no stranger to fire. The recent years-long drought in many states has made that an even closer relationship as massive wildfires devastate parched rangelands. But in Idaho, more and more ranchers are turning in their cowboy hats for firefighters’ helmets as this year’s fire season starts up.
The Mountain Home Rangeland Fire Protection Association (RFPA) is nearing the first year anniversary of its first official fire fought.
This association of Idaho ranchers was the first of its kind in the state following a bill to allow ranchers to legally fight to protect vital public lands against catastrophic wildfire.
The bill that allowed ranchers to become fire fighters was Idaho’s House Bill 93, which amended the Idaho code where range fire response is concerned. Shortly following the bill’s passage in early 2012, several RFPAs have sprung up. The Mountain Home RFPA was the first such group, founded in part by Mountain Home rancher Charles Lyons, but there are now several groups. According to Emily Callihan, public information officer with the Idaho Department of Lands, there are roughly 170 ranchers participating in RF- PAs covering 3.6 million acres in the state.
“In addition to the Mountain Home RFPA, three more have been set up this year, and there are an additional three or four that might be set up to fight the 2014 fires.”
She went on to say the programs have had a lot of support, both from the community and especially from a number of federal and state agencies. In addition to the bill, the Idaho Legislature allowed a one-time funding increase for start-up costs of the programs. Other groups, including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the state Department of Lands also chipped in money for the groups, which has outfitted them nicely with training, protective gear, and equipment.
Idaho isn’t the only state that has rancher fire fighters; both Oregon and Nevada have RFPA systems set up with ranchers. Oregon’s oldest group has been around since 1968. But the different states have very different requirements for their RFPAs. Oregon’s RFPAs are relatively unregulated compared to Idaho’s, and Nevada’s lacks official recognition.
Idaho might not be the first to have RFPAs, but according to Steve Acarregui, assistant fire management officer of the Boise district who does a lot of work training the RFPA members, Idaho is doing it right.
“These groups are sanctioned under the state fire marshal,” he said, and made a big deal over the fact they are state-recognized groups.
“In Nevada, [RFPAs] are more in line with Idaho in terms of standards and having training, but there is no state legislation avenue for the state to recognize those groups as formal entities.”
Acarregui said this was a critical element and really improved the conditions for everyone involved. He characterized creating good RFPAs as a system of certain steps. After training, the most important one was establishing communications.
“You have to have communications. I don’t care if you’re the Boy Scouts or the U.S. Army, if you don’t have communications, you will fail.”
Lyons also stressed the value of communication. While Acarrengui was mostly talking about having lines of communication—radios and the like—and the knowledge of how to use them, Lyons stressed understanding each other.
“If you want to wear the hard hat and go through the basic training, you got to learn the fire language.”
He explained that there are plenty of technical terms as well as fire-fighting jargon used when on the field. And in the heat of battling a fire, everyone must be on the same page in terms of communication.
The Idaho RFPAs are required to undergo basic fire training, among other things.
“They ask us to take the basic red card course fire training they do,” said Lyons. “It’s a basic fire fighters course the BLM trains. It would be the same training a green recruit would get right out of high school to be a fire fighter.”
In addition to the training, Idaho’s RFPAs are required to be tax exempt groups and to get insurance.
Obviously, ranchers and cattle benefit when ranchers take up the fire ax to protect public lands, but they are aren’t the only ones. Callihan brought up a long-known detail that fires are bad for endangered or threatened wildlife such as the sage grouse.
Of the four established RF- PAs, their collective ranges cover a lot of key sage grouse habitat in Idaho.
Many sources over the years have pointed to catastrophic wildfires being among the greatest threats to sage grouse numbers, sage grouse being a key species of concern in Idaho and in other fire-prone western states.
“A lot of these wildlife agencies have really taken notice of these RFPAs,” Callihan said, explaining that the speed of response offered by trained ranchers can mean the difference between hundreds of acres burning.
Lyons discussed this point at length, though more in terms of the changes in fires and grazing numbers over the years.
“From a rancher’s standpoint, in this country an average fire year [in 1970] was 10,000 acres. That’s a fire today. And now we burn in the hundreds of thousands.” He estimated the cuts in grazing since then have been about two-thirds, concluding “so what we’re doing is becoming really efficient at growing fire fuel.”
While Lyons has headed up the Mountain Home RFPA efforts, he said emphatically he does not want to see the ranges burn, but be grazed to prevent fire.
“I don’t want to be a fire fighter; I want to be a rancher.”
Until all involved realize the value of proper grazing to fire prevention, having cowboy boots on the ground dealing with fires has an economic benefit as well. Since ranchers are often out in some widespread remote areas, they often know of and can address fires when they are small as well before BLM response can come.
“Obviously, with these ranchers living and working in some of these remote places in Idaho, they really are the first response,” said Callihan. “They are what can save the range and the resources. And it can save taxpayer money by getting to the fires faster.”
Starting your own RFPA
Even though RFPAs exist in some states, there are many others which are historically and currently afflicted by devastating wildfires on a yearly basis which have no such programs. To those who are interested in getting something like this started in their own states, Acarregui had some advice.
“They need to work with their governor’s office and their state representation to create legislation to allow them to be recognized as a state-sanctioned firefighting agency. That is key.” He went on to give examples of how Nevada’s RFPAs sometimes have trouble because they are not state-recognized fire fighting agencies, such as butting heads with official fire fighting groups and having little to no recourse to get the things they need.
Lyons also had some suggestions for anyone wanting to work towards getting RF- PAs in their state.
“Be willing to jump through some hoops,” he said regarding working with BLM and/or other official groups. “You’ve got to see where the BLM guys are coming from, the responsibilities they have and the legal issues they have to deal with.”
He did, however, stress that the programs they have in Idaho would not have been possible without the dedication and efforts of the state and official groups. Acarregui had similar words of praise for the ranchers.
“They can be a huge asset to us in achieving our mission, but we have to set them up for success. They are fighting fire shoulder to shoulder with our resources.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor