Washington unions say no to rangeland protection associations

A cow killed in the Carlton Complex fire in July 2014 lies dead near Twisp, Wash. State firefighter unions oppose the formation of rangeland protection associations that would be first responders to rural wildfires.

OLYMPIA — The prospect of ranchers, farmers and other rural landowners organizing into firefighting associations continues to get a cold response from unionized firefighters.

State lawmakers should exhaust other ways to extend fire protection to remote areas before authorizing rangeland fire protection associations, Washington State Council of Fire Fighters lobbyist Bud Sizemore said Thursday.

“Right now, our feeling is it could be somewhat of a drain on existing resources rather than a big help,” he said. The council represents 130 local firefighter unions. The state could look at enlarging existing fire agencies, he said. “Those structures are already there.”

Oregon and Idaho have long had rangeland associations. The volunteer organizations — 24 in Oregon and nine in Idaho — are intended to mobilize landowners to put out wildland fires in places far removed from the nearest fire station.

Washington has some 363,000 acres that aren’t within any fire agency’s boundaries, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Fire agencies may still respond to keep fires from spreading to protected land.

Well-led rangeland associations have been effective, said Emily Jane Davis, an extension specialist in Oregon State University’s College of Forestry.

Trained landowners become an asset to fire agencies rather than a source of conflict, she recently told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

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

House Bill 1188 would allow landowners to form nonprofit rangeland associations. The bill assumes that ranchers, farms and others are well-positioned and well-equipped with bulldozers, backhoes and trucks to keep wildland fires from growing out of control before the professionals arrive.

The bill would require the associations to keep a roster of volunteers who have basic firefighter training and protective gear.

The associations would not collect taxes. An analysis of how much the associations would cost and whether public funds would be needed to support them has not been completed.

Environmental groups support the bill because they don’t like to see wildlife habitat burned up. DNR has identified rangeland associations as one way to extend service to unprotected lands. The union that represents DNR firefighters, the Washington Public Employees Association, has not endorsed the bill.

Douglas County rancher Molly Linville said landowners will do what they can to nip fires, so they might as well be trained, equipped with radios and recognized as legitimate.

“You’re either going to get a bunch of rogue ranchers out there, or you can have trained ranchers out there,” she told the House committee.

At the same meeting, Mike Bucy, a fire district chief in Stevens County, said rangeland associations would be “nothing more than another piece of patchwork in a state that is already overburdened by bureaucracy and lacks one central voice in how we approach wildland firefighting.”

He said members of rangeland associations would be hard-pressed to stay motivated. “There would be a lot of enthusiasm to begin with, but if there were no fires (the) first year, second year, third year, that enthusiasm begins to drop off,” he said.

The Washington Cattlemen’s Association and Washington Farm Bureau support rangeland associations. The bill’s prime sponsor, Moses Lake Republican Tom Dent, argues that some landowners are too far out for a fire district to annex. He said landowners are willing to fund the associations.

Rep. Joel Kretz, an Okanogan County Republican, said he lives in an unprotected area. “I’m really having a hard time understanding how (rangeland associations) could add cost and bureaucracy,” he said. “I don’t see where this is anything but a really good deal for the most rural parts of the state.”

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