Feds Allow Idaho Ranchers to Help Fight Wildfires

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When a wildfire sparks on a rancher's land, what the rancher sees burning is money—the land grows food for their cattle, and if it's charred, ranchers are unnecessarily spending money on hay. It can take a couple of years before that land is productive again as well.

When ranchers see a fire start, they want to see the fire put out, fast. Boise State Public Radio reports that this has caused a contentious relationship between ranchers and those who manage wildfires.

Ranchers like Charlie Lyons of Mountain Home told BSPR that the Bureau of Land Management takes too long to put out a fire.

"Me and another rancher showed up on that fire and they were back there fartin' around," he said. "They being the BLM. They were back there doing their coordinating."

Out of frustration, ranchers try to suppress fires themselves—making government agencies nervous about possible liability issues. A few court cases in 1995 and 2001 kept the BLM wary of volunteer firefighters when a handful died in fires and their families successfully sued the agency.

According to the BLM, the government can't restrict a landowner from trying to manage a fire on his or her own property, but the agency cautions that the citizen can quickly become a hinderance to firefighting effort and a danger to themselves and professional firefighters.

The two groups reached an agreement at last—looking to Oregon, where government fire managers have formed alliances with ranchers dating all the way back to the 1960s. An Oregon law allows ranchers to form their own firefighting entities called Rangeland Fire Protective Associations. The legal agreement also allows the government to supply the associations with equipment like water tenders, radios and protective gear, as well as training.

Since 2012, when the law passed in Idaho, more than 250 ranchers have undergone training, watching Powerpoint presentations in classrooms. There are now five fire protective associations in the state including the Mountain Home, Owyhee, Saylor Creek, Three Creek and Black Canyon areas, with more on the way in areas such as Shoshone Basin, Notch Basin, Prairie, Pahsimeroi Valley, Weiser and Clark County. They protect more than 4 million acres of private, state and federal lands according to the BLM.