It has been nearly six months since lightning sparked a fire in the sagebrush steppe along the Idaho-Oregon border northwest of Silver City. The so-called Soda Fire was intense, exploding to more than 270,000 acres in the space of nine days. Video footage of the fire showed rolling waves of flame consuming a landscape 400 square miles in size. The black scar was so large it could be seen from space. Referred to as a "huge flaming deluge" by the Bureau of Land Management, the blaze burned more than 50,000 acres of sensitive sage grouse habitat, killed 27 wild horses and tore through 41 grazing allotments, making grazing there impossible for at least the next two seasons. Land managers are still assessing the damage and working out a plan to rehabilitate the area.
While the sprawling expanses of sagebrush in the West may look placid, they are volatile, delicate places where the smallest spark can grow into a disaster. About 100 miles west of the Soda Fire site, a different kind of range fire was touched off in January of this year, when armed anti-government militants overran the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge outside Burns, Ore.
The self-styled militia members were there ostensibly to protest against the sentencing of a pair of Oregon ranchers who lit fires on BLM land that later grew out of control. Led by brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy—whose father, Cliven Bundy, faced off against federal officials over grazing fees in a 2014 armed standoff at his Nevada ranch—the Malheur occupation quickly escalated into a general protest against all federal management of public land and a call for rebellion across the country.
The final occupiers, including a couple from Riggins, were taken into custody Feb. 11 after 41 days. In the course of the takeover, 54-year-old militant Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, a former rancher from Arizona, was shot and killed by authorities.
The ringleaders of the occupation, including the Bundy brothers, were arrested following Finicum's death. On Feb. 3, a federal grand jury indicted 16 of the occupiers on charges of conspiracy to impede officers of the United States. Days later, the elder Bundy, who had flown to Oregon to protest on behalf of his sons, was also arrested. Meanwhile, the Bundys and two other militants were indicted Feb. 17 on 16 charges related to the 2014 standoff. Cliven Bundy, 69, has since been denied bail. If convicted, he may spend the rest of his life behind bars.
In its announcement of the Feb. 3 indictments, the FBI characterized the Malheur occupation as a "long and traumatic episode for the citizens of Harney County and the members of the Burns Paiute tribe."
For Merrill Beyeler, an Idaho rancher and lawmaker, the trauma extends far beyond the sagebrush plains outside Burns, Ore.
"It's a tragedy for the West," he said. "What I think is occurring in the West is a lack of trust, and a lack of trust is created when we divide people and start to put people on opposite sides of the fence, and we don't look at the larger issues."