A new collaboration has Idaho ranchers and the BLM fighting fire together

by Emily Guerin

On a hot day in August 2011, lightning sparked a fire in the rocky bluffs outside Glenns Ferry, Idaho. With the Bureau of Land Management's fire crews tied up on the other 16 or so fires burning in the area, a few local ranchers, some of whom had grazing allotments on the land, rushed in and beat back the flames through the night. They knew this wasn't allowed -- the BLM had banned untrained locals from the fire lines for years -- but they often pitched in anyway, especially when the agency seemed overwhelmed.

"We just about had it whipped," says Charlie Lyons, a rancher who had been on the impromptu crew fighting the blaze. But around dawn, he heard from another rancher that the BLM was demanding they step down, so they left. The Blair Fire subsequently grew to almost 40,000 acres, burning one rancher's allotments and destroying sage grouse and mule deer habitat.

Afterwards, the ranchers were exasperated, and talk of the fire filled coffee shops in nearby Mountain Home. The BLM was frustrated, too, because from its perspective the ranchers had been out of control, "chasing fires all over hell. We were wasting a huge amount of time trying to get them off the fire lines," says Steve Acarregui, a fire-operations manager in the BLM's Boise district. Things got worse later that fall when a rancher crashed his tractor into a ravine while fighting a fire on public land south of Mountain Home, narrowly escaping while his tractor burned up. For Acarregui, that was it. "What's it going to take (to keep ranchers off fires)?" he asked. "For someone to get killed?"

The fire conflict was the latest in a long history of battles between ranchers and the BLM in southwestern Idaho. Much of the tension is related to grazing cutbacks, which have increased as lawsuits from environmental groups have forced the BLM to perform new environmental assessments and review permits. Already restricted in where and when they could graze cattle, it seemed like the BLM was now telling them to stand back and watch their pastures burn.

But a surprising solution has emerged. Instead of arresting well-meaning ranchers, the BLM has decided to train them as firefighters and work with them. Not only can fires be put out more quickly, but there's also greater trust between the ranchers and the BLM. Such rangeland fire protection associations, modeled after similar groups in eastern Oregon, are now spreading around Idaho and could help cash-strapped federal agencies save money and pasture and get along better with locals throughout the West. "If you can find one issue (like firefighting) you agree on or where you're working well," says Andy Delmas, the fire management officer for the BLM's Boise District, "it helps (you) talk about some of the more difficult issues."

It was another lightning-caused fire that prompted the BLM to ban ranchers from firefighting in the first place. The Point Fire was blazing just south of Kuna, Idaho, on a triple-digit day in July 1995 when the BLM's incident commander directed two volunteers from the local rural fire district to drive their brush truck along the fire's edge and spray water. Unbeknownst to him, the men had almost no wildfire experience and inexplicably turned their truck away from the fire into an unburned area thick with cheatgrass and chest-high sagebrush. Suddenly, the vehicle overheated and stalled. As the volunteers tried to re-start it, the wind picked up and flames raced toward them at nearly 600 feet per minute. "The truck's been overtaken by fire!" they yelled in their last radio communication. They were found dead in the front seats half an hour later.

The families sued the BLM, and a U.S. District Court judge required the agency to pay nearly $900,000 in damages. "That woke up the wildland fire community," says Acarregui, because now the agency, and incident commanders, could be held responsible if anyone got hurt on a fire, not just their own crews. The BLM began cracking down, allowing only trained firefighters to battle blazes on public land.

The change didn't sit well with ranchers. There's about one fire a week here in the summer, and while the land burned is public property, the grass that fuels the fires is leased by guys like Steve Percy, a Mountain Home rancher, who pays $1.35 per month for each cow and calf that graze on BLM land. A big fire can easily destroy a whole season's worth of feed, and livestock isn't allowed back on the land for two years after it burns. "That's our livelihood out there," Percy says, explaining why he and his neighbors started dodging the BLM's incident commander and fighting fires anyway.

But having a bunch of unaccounted-for people running around a wildfire made it hard for agency fire crews to work, as incident commanders had to wrangle ranchers back to safe zones before ordering water drops or back burns. "They were being their own worst enemy," says Acarregui. It got so bad that the BLM started bringing law enforcement to the fire line to keep ranchers away. Last summer, a belligerent rancher fighting a public-land fire southwest of Twin Falls was charged with a misdemeanor for cutting a firebreak with his tractor and fined $1,025 (plus another $250 for having an open container).

The conflict frustrated both sides. Ranchers were angry that the agency didn't devote more resources to the fires burning their grazing allotments, and some even speculated that the agency let fires burn deliberately to keep cattle off the land, something the BLM denies. Agency staffers disliked having to threaten ranchers with arrest. "You don't want to take somebody who wants to do something right and make it like they're committing a crime," says Delmas.

After the Blair Fire in 2011, Acarregui talked with a few Mountain Home ranchers and the Idaho Department of Lands about creating a formal fire-training program for them; many supported it. He presented the option to his boss, Andy Delmas, who was skeptical that ranchers would commit to the 32-hour training course and worried that they still wouldn't have enough experience. But the agency gave Acarregui the go-ahead, and last spring, 14 Mountain Home-area ranchers took basic fire training. "We tweak it quite a bit to give it a little rancher flavor," Acarregui says, omitting basics the ranchers already know. The classes cover how weather and pressure systems influence fires and how the BLM sets priorities when multiple fires are burning in an area. The ranchers would often come up to the whiteboard, draw a scenario of a recent fire and ask why the BLM fought it the way it did. "Once you explain why you do what you do, you can see the lightbulb go off," Acarregui says. Percy saw it happening, too. "I noticed in the class one of the fellows who was so critical of BLM on an earlier fire said, 'I see why you did that. I understand it now.'"

This past summer, the Mountain Home Rangeland Fire Protection Association fought its first fires. Ranchers dug lines alongside the BLM or rode along with the incident commander, pointing out water sources and where roads went. It's definitely more structured than it used to be -- "Radios kinda freak us out. We're all used to doing our own thing," Lyons says -- but both agency staffers and ranchers agree it's much better than before. There are fewer fights about tactics and priorities, and the RFPA saves the BLM money by catching fires when they're small, protecting grazing forage and sage grouse habitat. The BLM isn't worried about suppressing too many fires here -- due to invasive, and flammable, cheatgrass, much of southwest Idaho burns far too often. Ranchers also feel empowered by defending their livelihoods themselves instead of relying on the feds. Other than the fireproof clothes, radios and a fire truck supplied by the Idaho Department of Lands, the ranchers use all their own equipment. But Percy doesn't mind. "We're getting paid by saving our grass," he says.

In his state of the state speech this January, Gov. Butch Otter requested $400,000 to start up four more RFPAs around Idaho, and Acarregui's second round of fire training had 126 ranchers -- so many that at first there weren't enough fireproof clothes and radios to go around. In Owyhee County, Eric Morrison, secretary and treasurer of the brand-new RFPA, was expecting 25 ranchers to show up for January's fire training; instead, he got 47. As happened in Mountain Home, Morrison observed, "a level of trust has started to build" between ranchers and the BLM's fire managers.

While agency firefighters and ranchers are now better able to communicate and understand each others' priorities, Morrison says the newfound cooperation isn't likely to resolve the largest source of tension in southwestern Idaho: grazing. "The people who deal with fire deal with fire. The people who deal with range deal with range," he says. "And the level of understanding does not transfer from one issue to another."

Back in Mountain Home, though, rancher Charlie Lyons is trying to change that disconnect. He wants to show firefighters how, in his opinion, grazing keeps fuel loads down and helps keep fires from getting out of control. "The fire guys are more reasonable. They think more like we do," he says, "so we need them on our side. And that's kind of my goal in the end. I don't want to be a firefighter, but I need those guys to stand up for us and say, 'We need cattle out there.' "

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