Governor's budget would allow ranchers to fight fires
Funds would create fire protection associations
By SEAN ELLIS
BOISE -- Gov. Butch Otter's proposal to help ranchers and other landowners create four more volunteer fire protection associations in Idaho was welcomed by the cattle industry.
"There is a great deal of interest" in these associations, said Idaho Farm Bureau Federation Range Specialist Wally Butler.
In his state of the state address, Otter, a rancher, said his proposed budget includes $400,000 to help create four more rangeland fire protection associations, which will be authorized to help state and federal agencies fight wildfires in the region.
If the Idaho Legislature approves the request, the groups will be patterned after the Mountain Home Rangeland Fire Protection Association, the state's first such group that was formed by ranchers last year.
"Nonprofit groups like theirs can assist the Bureau of Land Management, Idaho Department of Lands and rural fire districts in fighting and maybe even preventing catastrophic wildfires on the nearly two-thirds of Idaho land 'managed' by the federal government," Otter said.
More than 1.7 million acres burned in Idaho last year and close to $200 million in state and federal dollars was spent on wildfire suppression in the state in 2012.
Allowing ranchers and other landowners to quickly respond to fires can help prevent more of the extremely large wildland fires seen across the West in recent years, said Lt. Gov. Brad Little, a rancher and farmer.
"Those catastrophic fires cost way, way too much money and we've got to get more of them put out early," he said. "To most people on the street, it's an absolute no-brainer that (ranchers) be allowed to do that."
The Mountain Home association helped the BLM fight the 12,000-acre Stout Fire north of Mountain Home in July. Steve Acarregui, fire operations manager for the BLM's Boise district, said last year that the ranchers' knowledge of the land in that area was valuable in forming a plan to stop the fire.
Besides their knowledge of the land, many ranchers also bring their own resources, including discs, dozers and water trucks, he added.
"Just about all the ranchers have that type of stuff," Butler said.
Ranchers routinely helped the BLM fight fires years ago, but the practice was stopped due to liability reasons.
After being trained by the BLM, forming a non-profit group and purchasing their own liability insurance, the Mountain Home group reached agreements with the BLM and IDL that allows it to fight wildland fires.
"We ranchers used to put all the fires out," Little said. "This money the governor talks about will, on a more formal basis, allow ranchers to do what they've done for 100 years."