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10 years later: The legacy of Idaho's huge Murphy Complex Fire

10 years later: The legacy of Idaho's huge Murphy Complex Fire

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THREE CREEK — Bert Brackett drove his dusty ranch truck, a Ford Super Duty with more than 150,000 miles on the odometer, down the rough dirt road that leads to his grazing allotment, passing a dirt fork off to the left and a “Post Office” sign.

Built in the late 1800s, with Elk Mountain timber hauled over 18 miles of rangeland, the log cabin wasn't a formally designated post office but decades ago served as a place where cowboys could pick up messages.

It burned in the Murphy Complex Fire, 10 years ago this month. So did more than 650,000 acres in remote Twin Falls and Owyhee counties and northern Nevada, an area almost as big as Rhode Island.

The July 2007 fire, Idaho's biggest since 1910, provided the impetus for the creation of Rangeland Fire Protection Associations that help fight fires over millions of acres in rural southwestern Idaho. This year about 330 ranchers and farmers are RFPA members, and they're often able to spot and reach a fire before Bureau of Land Management firefighters could.

The federal government and Idaho spent millions of dollars after the Murphy Complex Fire on reseeding efforts, and in many areas the sagebrush is coming back. But opinions differ on whether the land was restored as it should have been, whether there are problems with the BLM's current grazing management policies and, if so, what those problems are.

And for some, the legacy of the Murphy Complex Fire is much more personal.

A rancher's perspective

Brackett, whose family has ranched in the Three Creek area since the late 1800s, rattled off other old cabins and homesteads — by the names of the families who built them — that burned in those two weeks 10 years ago. The loss of that history, he said, is one of the fire's lasting tragedies.

Brackett stopped the truck, near a spot where about a dozen of his cattle burned to death. The fire consumed about 60 percent of the land on which Brackett’s cattle graze, and some were trapped here.

“It burned over the top of them,” he said.

As Brackett drove — and the road dwindled to just a couple of ruts — he pointed out areas that had burned next to ones that hadn’t. Or areas burned badly next to others just lightly scorched. Or areas burned multiple times in recent years.

He pointed out differences in the vegetation — green rabbitbrush in the badly burnt areas, and more grayish-blue sagebrush, a key plant in this desert ecosystem, in some areas that escaped the flames.

“If you lose the sagebrush, you lose your seed source, you’ve lost your sage grouse habitat,” he said.

Whether more grazing could have reduced the fire’s intensity was hotly debated in its aftermath. Then and today, Brackett believes it would have helped by reducing the amount of flammable grasses on the land. At his home he still has a sun-faded poster of a picture he took of Mud Flat Hill, showing the contrast between the side of a fence line that burned and the side that didn’t. Brackett, who is a state senator now and was in the state House 10 years ago, used to hang the picture in his Boise office, and he took it with him when he gave talks about the fire.

“Properly doing it removes some fuel,” Brackett said. “You don’t graze it down to bare ground.”

Brackett drove past some of his cattle grazing in front of a barbed wire fence. He pointed to the spot where, 10 years ago, he cut the fence so his cattle could escape the flames with the fire just a quarter-mile away.

With the exception of the sagebrush, Brackett said, the land has made “just a remarkable recovery.” However, he wants to see more work done on pre-fire planning, and more flexibility for cattlemen to graze, to move their herds more based on conditions and not the calendar and to run more livestock if forage is abundant. Of the three major contributors to fire — high temperatures, low humidity and fuel — the last is the only one humans can control, he said.

“If the managers had more discretion, more flexibility," he said, "they could manage the fuel a little bit better.”

Brackett doesn’t feel like people have learned the lessons of the Murphy Complex Fire. He pointed to the 2015 Soda Fire southwest of Boise, which has led to some of the same sparring — ranchers who say more grazing could have mitigated the fire’s impact, BLM officials who say weather was the major factor, environmentalists who say grazing makes wildfires worse.

“If there were any lessons, we kind of forgot them,” Brackett said. “The institutional memory just is not there.”