Nearly every summer, Washington state ranchers are forced to risk their lives to rescue their cattle as wildfires approach.
When they offer to help state and federal firefighters by plowing fire lines, the offers are often refused.
In some instances, fire crews stand by, choosing not to stop an approaching fire because they are unsure which federal, state or local agency should be in charge.
In the meantime, grazing land — which ranchers depend on to feed their livestock — is allowed to burn.
We hesitate to criticize firefighters. They have one of the toughest jobs in the West, bringing massive wildfires to heel under hot and dirty conditions.
But on occasion ranchers find themselves in the position of having to stand up for themselves and their livelihoods when firefighters get wrapped up in what appears to be bureaucratic fumbling.
Washington state rancher Molly Linville recently was forced to jump on an ATV and race to the rescue when a wildfire roared across the land where her cattle were grazing. A neighbor, Justin Sachs, offered to build a fire line with his equipment but U.S. Forest Service firefighters turned him away.
Unfortunately, such anecdotes are too common around the West, where wildfires rage across public and private land.
In past years, firefighters from as far away as Australia and New Zealand have been flown to Washington state to fight wildfires while ranchers’ offers of help were rejected.
We understand how bureaucracies work. But it’s also important to understand how ranchers work. Grazing lands need to be protected. They are the life blood of most livestock operations.
One gets the feeling some firefighters see grazing land as empty space, and stopping wildfires is no emergency to them.
The lack of grazing can put a rancher out of business, kill livestock, or both. Protecting grazing land is in many ways just as important as protecting a house or a factory.
In parts of the West, such as Oregon and Idaho, fire officials work with farmers and ranchers, who are ready, willing and able to provide manpower and equipment to fight wildfires. By setting up rangeland fire protection associations — the first was established in Oregon in 1964 — the states, federal Bureau of Land Management and ranchers have figured out ways to work together instead of arguing with one another. The states’ legislatures provided funding for training, protective gear and equipment to these volunteer, nonprofit associations.
Now 22 rangeland fire protection associations are operational in Oregon and 9 are in Idaho, standing ready to help BLM and state wildfire crews.
These volunteer associations have repeatedly demonstrated their value in stopping wildfires before they can grow and in fighting large fires in Eastern Oregon and southern and southwestern Idaho.
Nevada has also set up similar associations.
Every state in the West should follow their examples.
It’s time to stop arguing and work together to fight wildfires that roar across the rural countryside each year.
It’s time to look for solutions, and rangeland fire protection associations are just that.