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Mountain Home ranchers form Rangeland Fire Protection Association

Monday, September 17, 2012

MOUNTAIN HOME, Idaho - (Sept. 11, 2012) - A number of ranchers in Mountain Home have formed Idaho's first Rangeland Fire Protection Association (RFPA), allowing the ranchers to assist the Bureau of Land Management and the Idaho Department of Lands in fighting range fires in one of the most fire-prone areas of the state.

The Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission published a story today on its award-winning web site, www.lifeontherange.org, about the Mountain Home RFPA. Idaho Department of Lands officials encourages ranchers and private landowners elsewhere in southern Idaho to form a similar organizations to help reduce the high incidence of range fires. The region has burned repeatedly over the last three decades.

"In the United States, the most fires are right here, they burn the most ground," notes Wes Wootan, an Elmore County commissioner and Glenns Ferry farmer who was involved in the effort. "Because of that, it's proactive for us to put something together that addresses the issue of first response."

Over the years, ranchers have tried to help the BLM fight range fires on public lands. It's in their interest to prevent rangelands from burning up and losing vital feed for their livestock. Many ranchers have permits from the BLM to graze livestock on public lands during the summer months. The public grasslands provide important summer forage for livestock.  

But in recent times, federal policy has prohibited ranchers from fighting fires on public lands for safety and liability reasons. A range fire last year brought things to a flash point.

"We had a fire, a lightning strike that started some ground on fire  over by the Blair Trail Reservoir," said Wes Wootan, a Glenns Ferry farmer and Elmore County commissioner. "Two ranchers had it controlled and shut down until the BLM could get there."

When the BLM fire crew showed up, Wootan said, the ranchers "were asked to leave, they did, and that fire that was potentially a 5-15 acre fire grew to a 40,000-acre fire."

So far in the summer of 2012, 227 man-caused and lightning-caused range fires have occurred in southern Idaho, burning a total of 523,095 acres of public and private land, according to the BLM.

Wildfires are bad for Idaho's rangelands because they burn up healthy shrub-steppe habitat such as native perennial grasses and sagebrush that's critical for wildlife such as sage-grouse, a candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act, wintering mule deer and other wildlife. In the wake of wildfires, invasive noxious weeds and cheatgrass often sprout quickly and replace perennial grasses, and it can take decades to replant and regrow sagebrush and bitterbrush, officials say.

BLM officials admit that the federal policy regarding whether ranchers could help fighting range fires has been inconsistent. "In the late 80s, ranchers would come to fires and do some suppression work, but they were kind of operating as a stand-alone entity," says Steve Acarregui, fire operations manager for the BLM Boise District. "The feds were doing their own thing, and the ranchers were doing their own thing, which raises a lot of safety concerns. And it was a very unsafe way to suppress a fire."

To form the RFPA, ranchers signed agreements with IDL and BLM to work together, and they  received more than 40 hours of wildfire training. The ranchers also had to create a board of directors, form a nonprofit organization, and obtain liability insurance.  After completing the training, the ranchers received official firefighting gear, communications equipment, and resources for fighting fires, such as a shiny red fire engine from the Idaho Dept. of Lands.

Wootan is pleased to see the RFPA come together in a year's time. "We brought all of the entities together to end up with a positive situation that addressed everyone's issues," he said. 

It turns out that RFPA's are provided for in Idaho state code, similar to timber protection associations that were formed in many parts of northern Idaho decades ago to assist the U.S. Forest Service in fighting wildfires.

The RFPA agreement came together just in time for Mountain Home ranchers to help the BLM fight the Stout Fire in July. "This was the first fire we interacted on and incorporated the Rangeland Fire Protection Association into suppression operations, and it went very well," Acarregui said. "Some of the actual firefighting resources they provided were dozers, fire tenders and engines, they did a lot of line construction, and it was very beneficial." 

As things turned out, the range fire was contained and controlled at 12,000 acres. "It was a good catch considering the conditions and the resources assigned," Acarregui says.

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