Rangeland fire

A bill in the Washington Legislature would allow landowners to form rangeland fire protection associations, which have proven successful in other states.

Americans have long depended on volunteer firefighters to protect their lives and property.

A well-trained volunteer department is in many ways the life blood of towns and the areas surrounding them. They are neighbors protecting neighbors.

But there are some rural areas where fire departments don’t exist.

That’s why rangeland fire protection associations are so important. They consist of well-equipped and trained rural landowners who are first responders to wildfires.

The associations are in essence volunteer fire departments, but instead of fighting house fires, they help fight range fires in areas outside fire districts.

Oregon has had them since the 1960s. Idaho has had them since 2012. Nevada has them, too.

By all accounts, they are a huge asset.

Ranchers — who are the heart and soul of rangeland fire protection associations — have the most at stake when a wildfire breaks out. Their cattle or sheep are threatened, as is the rangeland, a valuable resource for feeding livestock.

RFPAs typically provide the initial attack when wildfires are still small. They also know the area and help state and federal crews plan their attack once they arrive.

It’s a cooperative effort that expands the presence and effectiveness of the professional firefighters.

That’s why it was so disappointing that firefighter unions in Washington state have lined up against rangeland fire protection associations.

It’s not like there are plenty of fire departments in rural Washington. About 363,000 acres of the state are outside any fire districts and unprotected. Combine that with the massive wildfires that have roared across the state in recent years, and it’s clear all local, state and federal resources were vastly outmatched.

Ranchers were forced to save their livestock and property on an ad hoc basis because state and federal firefighters were unavailable or didn’t understand that rangeland is valuable.

Such rescue efforts are far more dangerous than if the ranchers were properly trained, equipped and coordinated.

“You’re either going to get a bunch of rogue ranchers out there, or you can have trained ranchers out there,” Douglas County rancher Molly Linville told the the Washington House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

Emily Jane Davis, an extension specialist in Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, has studied rangeland fire protection associations.

“With time and experience, Oregon and Idaho have realized incredible advantages from having RFPAs, and that’s what my research has found,” she told the committee.

She was testifying on behalf of House Bill 1188, which would allow landowners such as ranchers to form rangeland fire protection associations.

The associations are an immensely valuable, cost-effective means of getting ready for the next fire season.

Judging from recent years, the professional firefighters will need all the help they can get.

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