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Idaho’s rancher-led Rangeland Fire Protection Associations work to stop wildfires early

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Ten Rangeland Fire Protection Associations are now in place across southern Idaho, adding more than 325 red-carded ranchers to the initial attack firefighting force. (Courtesy of Life on the Range)

Today, about 335 ranchers and RFPA members are fully trained and ready to fight fires across southern Idaho, writes guest columnist Steve Stuebner.

When black storm clouds gather on a hot summer night, Mountain Home rancher Charlie Lyons drives up to a high-point where he can watch for lightning strikes in the desert.

“When there’s lightning, we’re all out, and I go right up there to the towers is one of my spots, to sit and watch,” Lyons says.

Back in 2013, the Pony and Elk complex fires roared over the Mountain Home foothills and burned deep into Boise National Forest. Ranchers lost more than 100 cattle to the twin blazes, cabins burned in Featherville, and 281,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land were charred in a matter of days.

Speeding up initial attack and stopping wildfires from growing into huge destructive blazes was a major motivating force in leading Mountain Home ranchers to form the first Rangeland Fire Protection Association in the state 10 years ago.

The idea was to allow ranchers to work together with the Bureau of Land Management – and sometimes rural fire departments – to squelch wildfires quickly when they’re small.

New procedures were rapidly put in place. The BLM and Idaho Department of Lands provided training, start-up costs, firefighting equipment and radios so ranchers could respond quickly to wildfires in remote locations.

In 2013, state legislation was passed to formalize the creation of Rangeland Fire Protection Associations. Three new RFPAs were formed that same year – Owyhee RFPA, Saylor Creek RFPA and Three Creek RFPA.

Rangeland Fire Protection Associations spring up after big Idaho wildfires

Ranchers in the Three Creek area had experienced one of the largest wildfires in the nation in 2007 – the Murphy complex fire which burned more than 652,000 acres. And they watched the Soda Fire blow up to 280,000 acres in Owyhee County nearby.

“If you look at almost every one of the RFPAs, almost every one of them started after a big fire,” said Mike Guerry, a Three Creek cattle and sheep rancher.

Today, there are 10 RFPAs across southern Idaho, covering 8.9 million acres of land. That includes 1.8 million acres of previously unprotected private rangeland.

With more RFPAs in place, it builds firefighting capacity. Today, about 335 ranchers and RFPA members are fully trained and ready to fight fires across southern Idaho. With additional manpower and equipment, initial attack is often more rapid now.

“It’s because we’ve been able to work with these guys with the BLM and the training they’ve been able to provide,” Guerry says. “The friendships we’ve developed and the partnerships we’ve developed to be honest. Now today, when we go to a fire, we’ve pretty well got a plan in place on our way out there. How we’re going to initial attack it.”

Idaho ranchers, the Idaho Department of Lands and the BLM are celebrating the success of the RFPA program on its 10-year anniversary.

“This has been a phenomenal program for the state of Idaho and all of our partners,” said Dustin Miller, director of the Idaho Department of Lands. “We rely on the ranching community to help us out. There’s places that we just can’t get to in a timely fashion. So to have those ranchers out there, giving them the resources, giving them the training and the PPEs, it’s been huge.”

“The ranching community sees the value,” Miller continues. “They’re playing a role in managing these fires. They run cattle on these allotments. They don’t want to see the forage burn up. It’s important to them; it’s important for their livelihood.”

Reducing the damage to native shrub-steppe plant communities in southern Idaho is another important benefit. It’s crucial to protect sage grouse and other wildlife species on Idaho’s rangelands.

“These RFPAs play a crucial role in helping us protect the best of the best habitat and extinguish fires in sage grouse habitat and habitat that’s important for other sage-steppe species,” Miller says.

“The RFPA has been great. It’s huge to what we do. We’re able to get equipment out there quickly and lots of it,” says Chris Anthony, fire management specialist for the BLM. “It’s helped in multiple start situations where we’ve got fires, two or three out here, two or three in Burley, and that spreads us out pretty thin, to get RFPA resources out here, the dozers, the engines, and the overhead, allows us to be really aggressive with the fire.”

For this story on the 10-year anniversary of RFPAs, the Life on the Range crew visited with three different RFPAs to see how things are working today and what the future holds.

Mountain Home RFPA

Mountain Home Rancher Charlie Lyons is pleased to see the growth of RFPAs statewide.

“I could see that it had real potential,” Lyons says. “Just because there was so much unprotected area, and such conflict between ranchers and the agencies. Once people saw a window, and these guys are reasonable men, trying to protect their range, and the BLM, and their firefighters, so once they saw an opportunity, yeah, I could see real growth.”

After the Pony and Elk complex fires, the Mountain Home RFPA has been able to keep fires much smaller in recent years.

“It’s been pretty seamless,” he says. “Our fires went from 100,000 acres average, to we’re down to 6-7,000 acres now, … less than that sometimes.”

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The Interstate 84 freeway corridor from Mountain Home to Glenns Ferry used to be a major hot spot for vehicle fires. Through a partnership with the Idaho Transportation Department and BLM, the number of vehicle fires has declined. (Courtesy of Life on the Range)

The Interstate 84 freeway corridor from Mountain Home to Glenns Ferry used to be a major hot spot for vehicle fires. Through a partnership with the Idaho Transportation Department and BLM, the number of vehicle fires has declined.

“Taking care of the freeway, the No. 1 fire-starter in the U.S. between Glenns Ferry and Mountain Home, where they’ve been managing fuels in the freeway corridor, big deal,” Lyons says. “And then the mindset, when a fire starts, and we all show up with a purpose and work together. Big deal there.”

The Mountain Home RFPA was the first to get established in Idaho. Each RFPA has to form a nonprofit organization, recruit a board of directors, get trained by the BLM, and obtain a mix of fire engines, water trucks and more for initial attack.

The Idaho Department of Lands helps RFPAs with start-up assistance, and advice on where to apply for grant money for fire engines and other essentials.

“The state is really important in this deal, too. The state is the glue that holds us together,” Lyons says.

Sixteen ranchers serve on the board of directors for the Mountain Home RFPA. Their boundaries extend from Mountain Home to Hammett, covering 674,000 acres.

Ranchers contribute their own trucks, dozers and equipment, as needed.

The BLM and ranchers also create fire breaks to prevent fires from spreading from access roads and highways.

Charlie Lyons loves the Mountain Home RFPA’s new heavy duty Army surplus truck for responding to fires.

“This machine was surplus; it used to go out into the desert, and pickup tanks or Bradley vehicles,” Lyons says. “It’s a 6X, with a big CAT motor in it, it just came through the channels, it’s as sweet as can be, and now I pull the dozer for the ranch and fires, and it’s sweet, you couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Lyons puts all of his radios, PPE, drip torches and other equipment in the truck so he can jump in and go at a moment’s notice.

Shoshone Basin RFPA

The Shoshone Basin RFPA, located south of Twin Falls in Rogerson, covers a big swath of country, 488,000 acres of land.

Lori Satterwhite grew up on a ranch near Rogerson. She works for Simplot Land and Livestock as a range monitoring specialist. She heard about the Mountain Home RFPA starting up and looked into creating an organization in Rogerson.

“We started having some town hall meetings and had quite a show-up of local ranchers. Lot of interest. So yeah, I thought, we’ve got to do this,” Satterwhite says.

The Shoshone Basin RFPA worked together with the Salmon Tract Rural Fire District to get organized quickly. Later, they formed a nonprofit to become an official RFPA in 2015.

“We saw the need,” she says. “We’re trying to be proactive, just in case there may be a big fire. It could happen anytime. You look around and see all the fuel in the Shoshone Basin, we want to be ready just in case.”

Many ranchers run cattle in Shoshone Basin on private or BLM range. The Shoshone Basin RFPA has 45 members. Twenty-five are red-carded, meaning they are current on firefighting training.

They have five fire engines and a water tender – all donated by fire agencies. The large white tank behind Satterwhite holds 10,000 gallons of water for fighting range fires. It’s connected to a private well owned by the Pleasant Valley Grazing Association.

“We keep it filled all year long mainly and only wildland fires,” she says. “Any engine can fill up with it. BLM. Forest Service Any contractor. All year long.”

The Shoshone RFPA got a grant to cover the costs of the water tank. The agencies see the benefits of preventing large wild fires to benefit native habitat and wildlife, too.

“The reason why the Governor’s Office of Species Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wanted to fund this is because of sage grouse,” Satterwhite says. “And wildlife. We have all kinds of animals out here. We want to protect them. It’s their home.”

The Shoshone RFPA recently received a $15,000 grant from Duke Energy, which is building a large solar farm near Rogerson.

The funds were used to purchase new radios for all of their fire engines and portable hand-held radios for their firefighters. Next, they will apply for a grant for a portable repeater to fill communication gaps in remote areas.

So far, the Shoshone Basin RFPA has been able to nip range fires in the bud.

“We’ve fought several fires over the last several years, and this year, we’ve been very lucky, only had 4-5 fires this year,” she says. “Yep, catch them when they’re small. We’ve been very fortunate.”

Brad Sawyer, fire management officer for the BLM in Twin Falls, says it’s been super helpful to have the Shoshone RFPA assisting with fires in the high desert.

“We’ve got a ton of ground 3.8 million acres in our dispatch area. We all can’t be everyone at once,” he says. “Our mission to keep fire conservatively on the landscape, they’re a huge part of it. It just makes sense.”

For ranchers in the Shoshone Basin RFPA to work together with Salmon Tract and the BLM helps a lot, he says.

“It’s a great relationship,” Sawyer says. “For the RFPA to partner with a fire department gives them more access to resources, personnel, and also the cooperation piece, right? The communication and cooperation, that’s really what this is all about. That’s the reason it’s effective.”

And for the Salmon Tract Fire District, the Shoshone Basin RFPA has added more volunteer firefighters to their force.

“It was a big benefit to both of us,” says Rod Davis, fire chief for the Salmon Tract Rural Fire District. “It created a lot of cooperation and enhanced our personnel pool by a long ways.”

Three Creek RFPA

The Three Creek RFPA has an even larger chunk of country to cover – 1.5 million acres – in partnership with the Saylor Creek RFPA.

Formed in 2013, the Three Creek RFPA has about 50 rancher-members. Seven serve on the board of directors. Mike Guerry is the chairman.

Because of the remote areas and challenging road access, the two RFPA’s pre-position firefighting equipment and big water tanks in strategic, remote locations prior to fire season.

“Our deal can be very challenging for the BLM or us, based on access. Just getting there in a timely fashion,” Guerry says.

One water tank holds 50,000 gallons of water, with an open-top so helicopters can use it to fill water buckets.

“Classic example, one night we had 21 starts from Clover Creek to Richfield, that’s probably a 50-mile girth,” Guerry says. “We had 4-5 helicopters loading from that 50,000 gallon open-top tank. That was a huge asset.”

They also have added radio repeater towers in remote places to plug communications gaps.

“If we get on scene first, we attack the fire and try to pinch it off,” he says. “When they get on scene with us, we work together, until we’ve got control, and then Chris’ crew tries to put out the fire, and we kind of work back and work the edges.”

The winter training sessions with the BLM are very helpful, too, Guerry says.

“Chris has really focused the training to on-the-ground improvements we can make with our dozer operators, engine bosses, instead of just a generic training,” he says. “And that’s allowed our people to be better with their equipment too.”

Adds Chris Anthony, “We put them through sand table exercises, mock fires, leadership exercises, communication, effective communication and what that looks like, and round those edges, make things a little smoother, so when we do get out there, if it’s a real fire, we’ve already done it in the classroom and we can hit the ground running.”

What’s next for fighting fires in Idaho?

Looking ahead to the future, Charlie Lyons recommends staying the course.

“Keep it simple guys,” Lyons says. “It’s ranchers protecting rangeland and assisting the agencies to accomplish that. Nothing more.”

For each RFPA organization to function well into the future, new rancher-members will need to join and step into leadership roles over time.

“Sometimes I think it’s going to be hard to keep them going. Then, when I go to these meetings and I see these young people walk in, I think we’re going to be good, we’re going to be OK,” Satterwhite says.

She talks to the younger ranchers to make them feel welcome. “I don’t want to pressure them too hard. But I want to talk to them, I want to encourage them to keep coming.”

Overall, it seems everyone is pleased with the RFPA program.

“They’re a wildly important tool for us,” Sawyer says. “They all know the landscape, where the water sources are, where the cattle are, historically where things have worked, and where they haven’t, it’s huge.

“For all of the people of Idaho, it’s incredible. I can’t imagine ever wanting to go back to where we were 10 years ago.”

“RFPAs are playing a crucial role in managing and extinguishing fires in these ecosystems,” says IDL Director Dustin Miller. “Without it, we’d be seeing much bigger fires and fires burning longer in duration so I really appreciate the work these guys are doing out there.”

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.