U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Doug Rutan has fought wildfires of all sizes, from a few acres to more than 200,000 acres.
He is among a growing army of western ranchers who have volunteered to become firefighters in an effort to stop fires while they are still small.
“Minus the Soda Fire, it has been extremely effective,” said Rutan, who chairs the Owyhee Rangeland Fire Protection Association and operates a ranch near Pleasant Valley, Idaho. With the Soda Fire, “We had it out at about 5 acres with the (Bureau of Land Management). And the next morning, 30 mile-per-hour winds came up and it took off. Mother Nature.”
Firefighting teams battled the 2015 Soda Fire into submission after it burned nearly 280,000 acres. But for the most part, first-responding RFPAs like Rutan’s handle range fires averaging 10 to 12 acres.
“Some are an acre, some are 200 and that is what’s getting accomplished,” he said. “That is definitely a success.”
Rangeland fire protection associations are on the rise in the vast grassland and sagebrush areas of southern Idaho, eastern Oregon and parts of Nevada.
Officials from land management agencies — many based at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise — authorize and train RFPA members to fight fires. The rancher-manned associations aim to respond to remote fires quickly, getting a handle on them before government crews and assets can arrive. RFPAs also help agricultural producers and agency fire managers to coordinate more effectively by using the same techniques and strategies, communications systems and safety protocols.
“We have had bigger years and smaller years as far as the volume of fire, but I would say we’ve had a very good working relationship from the start” with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, said Mike Guerry, chairman of Three Creek RFPA serving south central Idaho and part of Nevada. The association formed in 2013 following an eight-year stretch that included some large fires.
“BLM and ourselves came at it very professionally. Therefore, we have done well from the start,” he said. “But we have continued to get better at what we do. As we continue to work together, we learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, trying to compensate for those and working accordingly in the method with which we attack these fires.”
Rutan and Guerry agree that since their associations formed, fire-response times and cooperation improved while the average size of a range fire, by the time it’s stopped, has fallen substantially.
Busy year expected
Both expect a busy fire year on rangeland as heat dries fine-fuel grasses and brush that grew well during a wet 2017.
That sentiment was shared by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who in a May 10 briefing said they expect another long, high-volume fire season in much of the West thanks to fuel buildup on forests and rangelands, low snowpack in some areas and high heat.
In 2017, the federal government spent a record $2.9 billion on wildland-fire suppression, the International Association of Fire Chiefs reported March 20 to a House subcommittee. The average cost from 2008 to 2012 was $1.3 billion.
Proximity to a range fire’s starting point is an advantage for rangeland fire protection associations.
“We see them, we get to them and it works really well,” Rutan said. “From our watch, you can let BLM know where the fire is, what resources are needed and what they need to be sending.”
Guerry said the associations can get to and quickly knock back a range fire early in the year, before BLM has all of its seasonal personnel and equipment in place. By mid-summer, an association may become less critical, except in a first-response capacity, as government assets peak.
“Later in the season, when their assets start getting dispersed or we get a multi-start event, then of course we become more critical again,” he said.
Steve Acarregui, the national wildland fire cooperator coordinator for the BLM Fire and Aviation Directorate, said most association members are private landowners — including many who hold grazing permits for federal land they have a vested interest in protecting.
“Many grazing permittees wanted to actively participate in fire-suppression operations on BLM-administered lands,” he said.
Oregon’s first RFPA dates from the 1960s, but it was 1998 before the state saw another created. The Idaho and Nevada programs started in 2012. Similar programs are under consideration in Washington and Arizona. Idaho BLM and the Idaho Department of Lands developed the current rangeland fire protection association model now being used.
University researchers in Oregon and Idaho last fall reported that eastern Oregon has 22 RFPAs covering 14 million acres while Idaho has nine covering more than 7 million.
Using the same training, safety and communications systems enables RFPAs and land agencies to work effectively, said Acarregui, himself a rancher and former BLM firefighter. BLM and the associations integrate operations through the federally mandated Incident Command System, which aims to create a standard approach and universal hierarchy for handling emergencies that can involve responders from several agencies.
Relationship-building between RFPAs and land agencies has been good so far.
“We have developed strong resource partnerships and have been able to make a difference in the area of fire suppression,” Acarregui said. The associations are a “force multiplier,” and “we want to build a guard station in every remote corner of the West,” he said.
Recent years have brought larger and less-predictable wildfires, more fires that threaten structures as more people live in remote areas, and more instances when fires occur in several regions at once rather than following defined seasons, said Randy Eardley, BLM external affairs chief at the National Interagency Fire Center.
“NIFC has grown, a reflection of longer fire seasons, more range fires, and an increased average number of acres burned nationally” each year, said Jennifer Jones, who started in the late 1980s with Boise National Forest before moving into public affairs with the U.S. Forest Service at the fire center.
Employment at NIFC totals 600 to 650 year-round, and the center can have around 1,000 including seasonal and emergency hires, BLM Public Affairs Specialist Kari Cobb said. Many are long-term employees with wildfire fighting or management experience.
NIFC supports and coordinates management of wildfires and other types of critical incidents. Center occupants include BLM and the U.S. Forest Service, the National Weather Service, National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and representatives of federal emergency agencies as well as state land management agencies.
Other operations at the center include the BLM’s Great Basin Smokejumpers, the training unit and the radio cache.
Officials say cooperation is good among the agencies and RFPAs.
“Fire doesn’t recognize any boundaries. Nor do we when we are managing them,” BLM’s Eardley said. “One of the reasons this works from Alaska to Florida and from Maine to California is that everyone is trained the same.”
Individual fire seasons can bring examples of a remote rancher facing a common dilemma: start fighting a fire immediately and risk getting in trouble with authorities, or wait for agency help or approval while the fire gets too big. RFPAs are one solution, though cooperation is not new.
Years ago, ranchers and BLM fought fires together, Rutan said. That ended for reasons of legal and liability concerns, and challenges BLM had in keeping track of everyone — all of which have been addressed through the RPFAs.
One benefit of the rangeland fire protection associations is that a rancher knows where roads, water and other resources are, he said.
Rutan, who ranches in Idaho east of Jordan Valley, Ore., said Owyhee RFPA was formed after he and others on the Idaho side saw the success of a rangeland fire protection association just across the Oregon line.
“They were getting a lot accomplished and putting fire out, and on the Idaho side, we weren’t even able to go,” Rutan said.
The Owyhee RFPA now covers about 1.3 million acres. About 52 of the 60 dues-paying members are trained to fight fires, having taken an initial 40 hours of training and annual refresher courses. Dues are $200 a year.
Vehicle insurance is the single biggest cost, Rutan said. Another cost has been picking up newly acquired trucks at far-off locations.
A new federal law will make it easier for RFPAs to acquire vehicles.
Acarregui said that in 2010, the U.S. Department of the Interior lost a rural fire assistance program in effect since 2001. It allowed the transfer of federal funding — basically through grants — to local organizations. The new law reinstates that authority and allows Interior to transfer assets directly to cooperating entities, he said.
Going forward, “one of the biggest things it does for us is allow us to be strategic on where we place firefighting equipment,” he said. For example, a fire engine that once could end up with any agency or state via the GSA surplus program can stay on BLM-administered lands with a rangeland fire protection association or rural fire department.
“They are the right people in the right place at the right time. The last link in the chain is making sure they have the right equipment to be successful,” Acarregui said of RFPAs.
Guerry said Three Creek RFPA pre-stages some assets in the remote Jarbidge Resource Area portion of its coverage footprint.
In June, Three Creek aims to have in service a water tender it is upgrading and a new engine being built with help from a grant, he said.
RFPAs have their challenges. Acarregui said one group was inconsistent in wearing the right clothing and protective gear, an issue that was resolved.
And there is always much to learn.
“I’m hoping the RFPAs keep going. They need to,” Rutan said. “It’s a good thing. But it’s a hard thing, too, because mistakes and hiccups can happen. If you learn from those, fine. If not, the longlasting-ness of RFPAs may not be possible.”