BURLEY • As wildfires raged across the Magic Valley this summer, not all the heat came from the flames.
Some farmers and ranchers who use grazing allotments to feed livestock during the summer or own land bordering public lands felt red-hot anger and frustration. The source: federal lands policies that prevent them from crossing onto public land to help suppress wildfires.
Fires Fan Ranchers’ Anger
In August, Elba resident Clair Teeter arrived home to find a wall of flames 12 feet high in front of his house that spread from a wildfire on adjacent public land.
He drove through the fire and with the help of local firefighters, saved his family’s home.
Later that afternoon, he stood in his yard and looked over his still-smoldering farm equipment that did not escape the blaze.
It was 16 years to the day after another rangeland fire had destroyed four miles of his fencing and 150 tons of hay.
Teeter’s anger boiled over.
“You can’t go onto public land even to save your own home,” Teeter said. “They’ll give you a ticket. Thirty years ago my grandfather would have got up and shot somebody over this.”
Local firefighters take responsibility for putting out wildfires that reach private property. However, during a raging wildfire local fire crews are spread thin as they fight the blaze at multiple crossover points.
Landowners sometimes watch as crops, livestock and equipment burn, because public land policies prevent them from using their own tractors or dozers to make firebreaks on public lands to prevent the blaze from encroaching on their property.
“You’ve got government officials telling you how to do things. And those public officials couldn’t ranch if you gave them one — they’d go broke,” Teeter said.
Dennis Crane, farmer and commissioner for Cassia County, said the issue causes a lot of angst among landowners.
“I hear about it all the time, especially when we have a fire,” Crane said. “It’s really typical for people to be angry and frustrated by the policy.”
Matters of Safety
Federal agencies are quite open about the reasons for the policy — including the ramifications if untrained, private citizens are injured or die while fighting fire on public land. In such cases or for incidents of other property damage, the agencies themselves and by extension, the public could be held responsible for one citizen’s actions.
In June, the BLM sent out letters reminding ranchers about the agency’s stance. The letter cited agency concerns about private citizens fighting fires, including their lack of training, fire safety equipment and the means to communicate with agency fire crews.
“One thing that we dread, and there’s always the possibility of it happening, is someone could lose their life,” said BLM spokeswoman Heather Tiel-Nelson.
Other downsides are less dire, but still problematic. In some cases, citizens’ equipment has been ruined during a fire; other times, a rancher’s dozer or tractor has destroyed artifacts. Independent suppression actions may violate federal law and conflict with land-management plan activities, according to the letter.
And there are consequences for those who disregard the BLM’s advice.
Tiel-Nelson said during an incident this summer, one individual who held a grazing permit in the Jarbidge area received a warning and then a misdemeanor citation for unauthorized destruction of vegetation. Tiel-Nelson said he pleaded guilty and received a $1,250 fine. The amounts of the fines are determined on a case-by-case basis.
“In this particular case he was also issued a ticket for operating a moving vehicle with an open container of alcohol,” Tiel-Nelson said.
Chris Simonson is fire management officer for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Twin Falls District. The citation is the only one he remembers ever being issued by the BLM in south-central Idaho.
“It’s not common at all and not where we want to go,” Simonson said. “This individual was really belligerent to the officer.”
‘They Know the Land’
Tiel-Nelson said the BLM has two basic priorities when suppressing wildfires. The first priority is protecting the firefighter and providing public safety, followed by protecting property and valuable resources.
Tiel-Nelson said the BLM recognizes that ranchers are a valuable resource for public lands. Often, she said, “they know the land like the back of their hands,” which can be an important resource for BLM firefighters.
“I’m really sensitive to their concerns,” she said.
Ranchers like Will Bedke also look at the issue from both sides.
Bedke runs 800 head of cattle 20 miles south of Oakley. He also contracts two dozers for fire use on public lands. This season he helped out on the Minidoka Complex, Little Birch Creek and Conner Creek fires as well as a couple of fires in Utah and Nevada.
“As a rancher I see the need for it,” Bedke said. “And I can also help out my neighbors. I sympathize 100 percent with them. It’s their livelihood and you can’t fault them for wanting to protect it.”
However, Bedke has been in the heat of a fire right beside the BLM and Forest Service fire crews — and he understands the dangers.
One of the most important ways ranchers can help is to share information like cattle locations with resource advisers in the BLM field offices and with the fire incident commanders at the scene of a fire.
The BLM and Forest Service work together and their policies on the issue are very similar.
“We don’t have private individuals out firefighting,” said Julie Thomas, spokeswoman for the Sawtooth National Forest. “But, we do have them doing other things on fires like delivering meals.”
More Help on the Ground
Bedke contracts his equipment with public lands through a program that allows private citizens to certify their equipment for use during a wildfire.
But the landowners still must be dispatched by the agency in question before they can help.
Simonson said the BLM program allows individuals and businesses to sign up to contract their equipment during a wildfire.
The equipment must meet stringent specifications and sometimes, its operators must undergo training. All the paperwork has to be in place before fire season starts. If the BLM dispatches a rancher to a fire and they provide help, they are paid.
Under certain circumstances, a rancher’s equipment can be contracted on a one-time basis, but it still must meet specifications.
Thomas said the Forest Service has a similar program.
Simonson said businesses from across the nation compete each year for the contracts and for a place on the dispatch priority list.
“This is where the waters get a little muddy,” he said.
Fire assignments are voluntary and landowners focused only on their own backyards can decline them, he said. But turning one down may slide the landowner down the dispatch priority list, he said.
There are also procedures private citizens must follow. Crane said contracted ranchers still have to have an agency guide walk in front of their equipment before they dig firebreaks to ensure there are no environmental or archeological issues along their route.
Simonson said not having enough guides during a busy fire season can be an issue, although the agency has the ability to order guides when needed from other areas.
“We have a number of them but when we are busy they are assigned to other tasks,” Simonson said.
In general, Simonson said, farmers and ranchers express concern about the process.
“The ranchers think it’s cumbersome for them and I don’t disagree with that, but it’s not in my ability to change that locally,” Simonson said.
A Workable Compromise
In July, the Idaho Department of Lands formally recognized the first rangeland fire protection association in Idaho. Based around Mountain Home, the group has a memorandum of understanding with the BLM and Idaho Department of Lands to fight fires on those public lands.
“The key is having a working relationship with BLM, the Department of Lands and the Forest Service,” said Wes Wootan, member of the association, Elmore County commissioner and farmer.
Similar associations exist in the timber industry in northern Idaho, and allow citizens to assist the Forest Service in fighting wildfires there.
Wootan said there are 14 members in the Mountain Home RFPA, and most of them are ranchers.
A fire last year near the Blair Trail Reservoir sparked the formation of the association. Area ranchers believed they were keeping the fire contained, Wootan said, but were forced to leave the scene when BLMcrews arrived.
“It destroyed a lot of livelihood for the ranchers,” Wootan said.
Wootan said after unproductive meetings with the BLM the ranchers met with representatives from the Idaho Department of Lands, who encouraged them to form the association.
It took about a year for the members to put together the nonprofit organization with a board of trustees and obtain their own liability insurance. They also completed 40 hours of wildfire training.
The Department of Lands provided them with firefighting gear, communications equipment and a fire engine.
Model for the Future?
The RFPA members believe their association is already paying off, and they’re already looking to improve it.
During this fire season, Wootan said, the Mountain Home RFPA responded to four fires including the Stout Fire in July.
“This benefits the ranchers but it also protects the community,” he said.
Wootan said the group hopes in time to procure more surplus equipment from public land agencies.
“We think this is going to take off and go throughout southern Idaho,” he said.
Simonson said another group in the Saylor Creek area plans to kick off an organizational meeting for a second fire association next month.
He remains cautiously optimistic about ranchers forming firefighting associations until they develop more of a history. Serious injury or death are real risks even for highly trained firefighters, he said.
“In my professional opinion this is the right way for individuals to go about this,” he said.