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Grazing slowly returns to land scorched by 2015 Soda Fire

BLM officials will use 30 miles of targeted grazing fuel breaks as part of its plan to protect the restoration work it has done following the 2015 Soda Fire, which scorched tens of thousands of acres of grazing land in southwestern Idaho and part of Eastern Oregon.
Sean Ellis

Capital Press

Published on December 5, 2017 8:28AM

Owyhee County rancher Ted Blackstock, left, and other ranchers discuss a fire map with BLM firefighting officials during the Soda Fire, which scorched 279,000 acres of land in southwestern Idaho and part of Oregon in 2015.

Courtesy of BLM

Owyhee County rancher Ted Blackstock, left, and other ranchers discuss a fire map with BLM firefighting officials during the Soda Fire, which scorched 279,000 acres of land in southwestern Idaho and part of Oregon in 2015.


Idaho and Oregon ranchers have just recently started to resume grazing their cattle on some of the 279,000 acres of prime range land scorched two years ago by the Soda Fire.

The fire burned 84 pastures on 40 U.S. Bureau of Land Management grazing allotments. Most of the damage was done in Owyhee County southwest of Boise, with some of it occurring near Jordan Valley, Ore.

As part of BLM’s post-fire restoration plan, ranchers were not allowed to graze their animals on those allotments for at least two growing seasons following the blaze.

Grazing has resumed this fall on 48 affected pastures and BLM officials expect to make decisions on the remaining 36 pastures by the end of December, said Peter Torma, BLM’s Soda Fire project manager.

Ted Blackstock is one of many ranchers who lost large swaths of their traditional grazing land to the fire.

“It wiped out all of our feed for that year and the next year,” he said. “It’s been very expensive for our ranch, having to find all that feed.”

Blackstock was able to get back on one of his allotments this fall and will also be able to use some range this winter that was damaged by the fire.

“It’s good to be back home again,” he said. “The grass is coming back really well.”

The lightning-caused fire burned rapidly and it burned hot, Torma said.

“There really weren’t these unburned islands or pastures that were not burned,” he said. “Whatever it went across, it burned 100 percent of it.”

The fire also killed hundreds of cattle.

“It was a pretty devastating fire,” said BLM spokesman Michael Williamson. “A lot of ranchers had to drastically adjust what they were doing” because of it.”

BLM officials have undertaken a myriad of treatment efforts aimed at restoring the land and the agency’s restoration plan includes making the landscape more resilient to fire in the future.

That plan includes 30 miles of targeted grazing fuel breaks, which will begin this spring and will be accomplished using producers who graze cattle in those areas.

The idea is to create a 200-foot buffer on each side of roads, with the grass grazed down to a 2-inch stubble height, said Lance Okeson, a BLM fuels program coordinator.

With the fuel breaks, “The rate of a fires’ spread is going to be drastically reduced,” he said.

The targeted grazing fuel breaks are designed to prevent another big fire, said Lara Douglas, manager of the BLM’s Boise district office.

BLM has used this tactic before but never on this scale or without extensive fencing, Okeson said.

“We’re trying to develop these techniques with the operators on the landscape, without a bunch of extensive fencing,” he said. “We’ve done some small-scale stuff like this but we’re trying to take it a little farther than that.”

The grazing fuel breaks are part of the BLM’s plan to protect the millions of dollars of restoration work that has already been done, Okeson said.

“From day one of the plan, it was, we’re going to do all these restoration efforts and we’re also going to have a strategy to protect them,” he said.



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