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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Rangeland firefighting provides model for ranchers and government workers to collaborate

Wildfire consumes sagebrush Aug. 5, 2015, as firefighters let it march down to the Columbia River on the edge of Roosevelt, Wash. (Don Ryan / AP)

Rural culture takes pride in self-reliance. Bureaucracies are built on the cult of the expert from out of town. They’ve found common ground in eastern Oregon and southern Idaho, collaborating to create a system of Rangeland Fire Protection Associations to coordinate the equipment and expertise of local ranchers with firefighting agency experts.

It’s not a revolutionary idea. The first association was formed in Oregon in 1964. Formation of the associations accelerated in the 1990s. During the 2017 fire season, Idaho had a total of nine associations representing approximately 330 ranchers, farmers and their hired hands providing protection for over 7.8 million acres.

A bipartisan group of legislators attempted to bring this proven concept to Washington. Substitute House Bill 2562 made it out of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee but stalled in Appropriations in the short session. It would have given legal authority to ranchers to protect their own property by being a part of a voluntary association.

Former local resident Molly Linville now operates the KV Ranch near East Wenatchee. Last year, a lightning strike hit public lands upwind of her property, where it could have been readily controlled. The Sutherland Canyon fire eventually swept through 5,500 acres of the 6,000-acre KV Ranch.

It must have been incredibly frustrating. The Department of Natural Resources demanded careful permitting to protect valuable native grasses and shrubs near a private gravel pit on the ranch. Then DNR crews sat in their trucks and watched the same parcel burn, according to Linville.

Wildland fire season brings to mind Smokey the Bear and ponderosa pines, but rangeland is affected as well. Linville has been part of a group pushing SHB 2562, working to educate agency officials on the value of rangelands and the capabilities of local ranchers to be part of an effective fire response.

The largest firefighting agency in the world is the U.S. Forest Service, according to John Giller, director of Fire Fuels and Aviation Management for the Forest Service. He also provides coordination for the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM has a major role in protecting rangelands in the West. Giller spoke at a panel discussion Friday in Yakima, organized by Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West. He confirmed “rangeland fire protection associations have been tremendously helpful in Oregon.”

A study by the Northwest Fire Science Consortium found the associations to be an effective alternative to the outside expert driven model commonly deployed in fire response. The study methodology included interviews with 63 individuals and four case studies, two each in Idaho and Oregon. The key findings seem obvious.

Ranchers are motivated to protect their property and their neighbors. They are on the spot, with equipment, with knowledge of local conditions and peculiarities of terrain that create hazards to firefighting and opportunities to corral a wildfire.

Time spent together planning and training builds trust. Federal agency personnel and stubbornly independent ranchers can both set aside their suspicions and communication improves. The “us and them” language fades and the focus is on getting the job done.

The study suggested building on those new relationships for prevention by managing grazing and prescriptive fire for healthier rangeland ecosystems, in advance of the inevitable lightning strikes.

The model has relevance beyond rangeland. DNR’s long-standing Firewise Communities program effectively brings neighbors together to prepare their piece of the wildland urban interface for potential fire. Prevention and preparation are essential to reduce the cost of fire suppression, a cost borne by all taxpayers.

Following the rangeland association model could be a benefit on the fire response side as well. The National Fire Science Consortium suggests developing systems to safely enable greater local involvement. Shared training, “experience, repeated interactions, and being given responsibility may help local participants gain broader understanding of professional firefighting techniques, and in turn increase professional comfort with and regard for local knowledge and values.”

SHB 2562 will likely be reintroduced in the next session, with a new bill number. It’ll be worth watching. Meanwhile, it’s time to get ready for fire season.

Editor’s note: This story was altered on Sunday, March 25 to remove incorrect information about an East Wenatchee ranch family’s right to build a fireline on private property.