By SEAN ELLIS
BOISE -- The number of ranchers and farmers in southern Idaho being trained and authorized to fight wildfires is quickly growing.
A group of 14 Mountain Home ranchers formed the state's first rangeland fire protection association last year and have provided the template for other areas to form their own groups, which are authorized to help state and federal agencies fight wildfires.
More than 1.7 million acres burned in Idaho last year and close to $200 million in state and federal funds were spent on wildfire suppression in the state in 2012. The area around Mountain Home has had more repeat fires in the past four decades than any other area in the United States.
"Every one in our community ... is tired of seeing this rangeland burn up every year," said Darcy Helmick, secretary of the Saylor Creek Rangeland Fire Protection Association. "We saw the success of our neighbors (in Mountain Home) and it was an inspiration to get this one started."
The 2013 Idaho Legislature approved Gov. Butch Otter's proposal to provide $400,000 to help create at least four more fire protection associations and lawmakers also passed a bill that establishes a process for starting and operating the groups.
Ranchers routinely helped fight fires for years but that practice was stopped due to liability and safety reasons.
After being trained by the Bureau of Land Management, forming a non-profit group and purchasing their own liability insurance, these groups can officially assist state and federal fire officials.
In addition to the Mountain Home group, the Saylor Creek association, which covers an area from Bruneau to Castleford, has about 70 people authorized to fight fires, and the Owyhee association, which runs from the Oregon border to Marsing, has about 50 members.
Most members are ranchers, though the Saylor group includes a fair number of farmers.
There are also efforts under way to form a Weiser association and the Saylor group is trying to form another association to its south.
The Saylor group is within the BLM's Jarbidge field office, which has sustained several major wildfires since 2005, including the monster Murphy Complex Fire, which consumed 650,000 acres in 2007.
"We want to get out there and hopefully catch these things before they get big," Helmick said.
The Owyhee group's members were impacted by several major fires in Malheur County in Oregon last year, as well as a large number of smaller fires within the district's boundaries, said Eric Morrison, the association's secretary-treasurer.
"They're interested in being able to protect their property," he said. "The ranchers know the country, they know where the roads go, which ridges you can get across and which ones you can't get across."
Steve Acarregui, fire operations manager for the BLM's Boise district, said he has no doubt these groups will prove valuable.
"I wouldn't be going down this road if I didn't think they could help. I know they can help," he said.