Stakeholders weigh in on rangeland associations

Another look at rangeland associations
A recent grassland fire in Grant County might help revitalize efforts allowing rangeland fire protection associations in Washington state. Photo: TJ Martinell

Earlier this year Washington state lawmakers considered HB 1188 sponsored by Rep. Tom Dent (R-13) that would allow the creation of rangeland fire protection associations (RFPA). Although the proposal failed to clear the legislature, a recent grassland fire in central Washington highlights the potential role the associations could play and might spur continued efforts to integrate resources available through private ranchers with public firefighting policy.

While Dent says he plans to reintroduce some version of the bill next year, wildfire experts and federal officials with prior experience working with RFPAs say proper training, communication and commitment from a central government agency will be crucial if they’re to succeed.

According to the latest update, state and federal agencies are still working to fully contain the 243 Fire in Grant County near the Columbia Gorge. The fire started on June 3 and within 24 hours consumed 18,000 acres. Dent told Lens that the speed with which wildfires can grow and spread underscores the importance of a timely initial attack that RFPAs can provide.

“Three, four, five or six hours – that’s a lot of time for a fire to grow and get out of control,” Dent said. “The more people you have engaged, the more effective you can be.”

For ranchers such as Molly Linville, the change in policy would simply acknowledge “we’re going to fight the fire, regardless. We’re not going to sit back and say, ‘oh no, woe is me.’ To me, the RFPAs are just a no brainer.”

In 2017, Linville’s ranch was forced to sell much of its cattle after their grazing land leased through the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) burned and they had to wait two years for the grass to regrow.

“The cattle are not born in feedlots,” she said. “They are born on the rangeland. This is how we produce cattle in the state of Washington.”

While recent wildfire seasons have drawn attention to the poor health of Washington’s forestland, Linville points to the high-risk conditions of the state’s grassland created in part by the introduction of certain invasive plant species.

“Those plants carry fire through this kind of country much hotter, much faster,” she said. “Historically it (grassland) has had a lot of fire move through, but they were low intensity fires. The bunch grasses around the sage brush don’t carry fire well. It burned, but just at really low intensity. It didn’t carry everything off.”

Among HB 1188’s supporters this session was the Washington Cattlemen’s Association. Lobbyist Mark Streuli told Lens that RFPAs would allow ranchers to respond to wildfires “in a more organized, coordinated fashion. While they’re “obviously going to fight them, regardless,” they can also “get to it quick, because they’re right there.”

That was the rationale behind the introduction of RFPAs in Idaho. Steven Acarregui was the former BLM Fire Program manager covering the southwestern section of the state and currently works as the National Wildland Fire Cooperator coordinator at BLM’s National Fire and Aviation Office in Boise. The federal agency manages 12 million acres of public land in that state.

Acarregui told Lens that when responding to wildfires in their jurisdiction they often encountered ranchers already at the scene. Although federal policy did not allow the ranchers to stay once BLM arrived, Acarregui said it was hard to tell them to stand down when a fire could make them “lose hundreds of dollars’ worth of feed in an afternoon.”

“If you step into their shoes…when a fire starts on federal grazing land, it really hits them in the pocketbooks,” he added. “It really put the incident commander for BLM in a precarious position. If they don’t stay within scope of duty, there’s case precedent where they could be liable if something went wrong. It created this conundrum, and this went on for a couple of years.”

Bringing the discussion with ranchers to a more suitable venue than an active fire line, Acarregui said BLM and the state of Idaho were able to craft a statewide program based partially on Oregon’s existing policy that was eventually approved by the state legislature.

“We built the program hand in glove together,” he said. “That’s key, that is so crucial I cannot express that enough. State and federal agencies are on the same sheet of music, so if a citizen asks a question about RFPAs, they get the same answer.”

As part of the RFPA program, BLM offered local training, while the state provided funding for radios and safety gear. Last year, 300 ranchers, farmers and others in southern Idaho were available for firefighting under nine separate RFPAs.

“It’s exceeded my wildest expectation,” said Acarregui. “They’re really an asset to the federal agencies. They know the country; they bring a lot of equipment to fight fire. They’re there before we are in most instances.”

He added that the extra resources can free up BLM to concentrate on other wildfires before they get big. “If we stop a fire at five acres as opposed to 50,000, that’s huge.”

A 2017 paper published by the University of Oregon made similar conclusions as Acarregui regarding the value of RFPAs with initial fire attacks. Examining four case studies, the authors concluded that “ranchers possess important advantages for fire response that can be put into practice through the RPFA model. These include in-depth local knowledge, access to their own resources and equipment, their spatial distribution across large landscapes, and strong motivation to protect their and their neighbors’ properties from fire.”

Regarding a similar program in Washington state, Acarregui says it can work, but “you just have to remember that it has to be legitimate. We’re not just authorizing people to go rogue in the field.”

Streuli said: “We’re not trying to threaten anybody’s territory in fighting these fires. It’s just that our guys are there. We definitely want to partner with anybody that we can.”

However, Acarregui said that securing commitment from a central government agency will be fundamental to the success of RFPAs. At the same time, he believes BLM is not suited for that role in Washington due to the comparatively little acreage it manages compared to Oregon and Idaho.

“We do have some resources, but they’re very few,” he said. “If you created RFPAs in Washington, BLM will help you set them up…but when there’s an actual fire, most times we’re not going to be there.”

The likely central agency to oversee RFPAs in Washington would be the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which backed HB 1188 during the legislative session and includes RFPAs in its 10-year strategic fire plan. Under HB 1188, DNR would have been directed to provide funding, equipment and training for RFPAs.

One of the 2017 University of Oregon paper coauthors was Emily Jane Davis, an assistant professor and extension specialist in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University. Like Acarregui, she says that RFPAs in Washington would likely look different than in other states and cover smaller areas due to the limited BLM presence. She also believes that commitment from DNR or another agency to provide sufficient training and other assistance would be crucial. Additionally, she stressed tying RFPA safety and communications standards to that of the agency running the program.

While Dent says he intends to introduce either a new bill or revised legislation, Davis said the state could also first experiment with RFPAs using a small-scale pilot program similar to what the legislature authorized in 2016 for DNR prescribed burn projects.

While concerns over long-term financial obligations were raised about HB 1188 during the session, Linville said the state might end up doling out less for wildfires if RFPAS are permitted. “If we have the proper reequipment and the proper training, as soon as we see an ignition, we’re going to be on it. In my mind, that’s going to save the state so much money.”

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