Can rangeland associations help fight wildfires?

Can rangeland associations help fight wildfires?
State lawmakers have introduced a bill allowing for the creation of rangeland fire protection associations to cover areas not protected by a fire jurisdiction. Photo: Oregon Department of Forestry

As stakeholders across Washington state continue to examine new ways to improve wildfire responses, state lawmakers have introduced HB 1188 which would enable private landowners to coordinate with public agencies responsible for adjacent land through rangeland fire protection associations (RFPAs). The proposal was given a Jan. 23 public hearing in the House Rural Development, Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee.

States such as Oregon and Idaho already use RFPAs, nonprofits that allow trained ranchers to respond to wildfires on lands within the association’s jurisdiction where there is no existing fire protection, also known as “no man’s land.” The concept is included in the state Department of Natural Resource’s (DNR) recently-released 10-year strategic plan as a possible recommendation. However, some local fire officials say it would fail to address existing problems with how wildfires are fought in Washington.

Under state law, DNR is responsible for protecting private and public forestland in Washington; that includes certain types of sagebrush and grass areas that have been affected by recent wildfire seasons. At a Jan. 18 work session of the House Rural Development, Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee, Dr. Trina Bayard with the Audubon Society told panel members that 163,000 acres of sagebrush habitat burned in 2018 alone.

“Sagebrush communities can take decades to recover from fire, and what we’re seeing on the ground is the recovery isn’t happening,” she said, adding that invasive cheatgrass is also threatening sagebrush recovery.

One way to change that is with improved fire response times, though Bayard noted in her presentation a “lack of coordinated fire response in rural rangelands” continues and “is preventing rapid responses to fire ignitions that would prevent the extensive loss of species and habitat that we’re seeing today.”

While improved communication and pre-positioning fire resources can help, some argue that RFPAs can play a role.

A rancher told panel members that if “you can put these cheatgrass fires out with a shovel if you get there in time.”

Oregon currently has 24 RFPAs that protect 16.5 million acres, while Idaho has nine associations protecting nine million acres. Depending on the individual RFPA, it will remain in command of a fire fighting operation until it is completed, or it may turn incident command over to another agency. Along with initial attack, RFPAs can also engage in patrols, scouting and long-term fire suppression. The associations can also conduct prescribed burning projects.

Their potential value was acknowledged in DNR’s 10-year strategic plan, which describes them as an “option for protection in currently unprotected communities. In addition, facilitate the annexation or creation of new districts, so that within two years, no lands or communities are unprotected.”

However, Stevens County Fire Protection District 1 Chief Mike Bucy told lawmakers at the work session that an RFPA would be “nothing more than another piece of patchwork in a state that is already overburdened by bureaucracy and lacks one central voice in how we approach wildland fire fighting. There’s pieces that don’t make sense in real life, in real practice.

“We need to respond to all fires and put out all fires,” he added. “That patchwork we already have is already costing the state more than it should both in bureaucracy and lack of responses.”

Bucy also suggested sending money that would otherwise be spent on wildfire suppression to local fire districts while expanding wildfire training to civilians. “If we slow these down and attack them more quickly…we’re going to save the state a lot of money in recuperation and attack.”

However, some panel members such as Deputy Minority Leader Joel Kretz (R-7) expressed skepticism at Bucy’s recommendations. Kretz lives in no man’s land outside of Wauconda in central Washington and in 2015 sponsored a bill allowing private citizens to fight wildfires on all land except federal property.

“I’m really having a hard time seeing how that (RFPA) is going to be more expensive than waiting for a fire district from far away that’s not going to come,” Kretz said. “If we get some help, that’s great.”

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