CASTLEFORD • For the past nine years, Mike Guerry has been forced to watch five massive wildfires sweep through his grazing allotments just outside of Castleford.
Prohibited from suppressing any wildfire on public lands, Guerry was only allowed to call in the fire to dispatchers, then he would helplessly watch the flames while he waited firefighters to respond. The end result has left Guerry with fewer amounts of vegetation on his grazing allotments, causing him to purchase feed when there wasn’t enough feed for his livestock.
Things are about to change. For the first time in several years, ranchers across southern Idaho – including Guerry — are getting an opportunity to assist in fighting range fires on state and federal lands.
The Idaho Department of Lands is working to create and fund rangeland fire protection associations. These nonprofit organizations would allow professionally trained ranchers to engage in initial wildfire suppression and use interagency resources, said Craig Glaizer, national fire plan coordinator for the Department of Lands.
The department submitted a bill to Idaho lawmakers to strengthen the laws pertaining to Regional Fire Protection Associations (RFPA) and allow for more funding earlier this year. After passing through the house and senate, the bill was delivered Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter Monday.
“This seems to be the right fit to meet the needs of state and federal officials and private individuals,” Glazier said. “RFPA members get 40 hours of training and access to radios and protection equipment.”
The department approved the first RFPA last year in the Mountain Home area. This year, three more associations are hoping to get approval before the start of the summer wildfire season.
Currently, Guerry is working to finalize approval for an RFPA in most of southern Twin Falls County. As chairman of the recently formed Three Creek RFPA, he is waiting to get his organization a nonprofit status before getting final approval from the state.
“The whole theory behind this is that initial attack is key,” he said. “BLM firefighters have the resources but we usually know the land better than they do and know how to get to the fire before it spreads.”
Guerry said 20 members have been trained for rangeland fire suppression. He hopes to have more members trained throughout the rest of the year.
“The reasons we haven’t been allowed in the past is because of liability concerns on safety and communication,” Guerry said. “We’re making sure that no one is out on the fire unless they have approval and have been trained.”
Other groups like the Saylor Creek RFPA have up to 50 members, Glazier said. The department has three RFPAs waiting approval for this year and an additional three more for next fire season.
“The interest has always been there,” he said. “This is a good way for people to get involved safely and legally.”
Guerry said the BLM and Department of Lands have been supportive of his group and other RFPAs in southern Idaho.
“These larger fires have changed the landscape, that means we need the management,” Guerry said.