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Long-Running Battle Over Fires Between Ranchers And Feds Reaches Truce

Jessica Robinson
Northwest News Network

For years there's been a battle raging between Idaho ranchers and the federal government over whether ranchers should be able to fight wildfires.

Ranchers say they've always just gone out there, with their trucks and tanks of water and try to put the fires out themselves. The Feds have said, leave it to the pros and don't make yourself a liability.

At times it's almost come close to blows. But now a truce has been struck that could change the way fires are fought every summer.

High costs of wildfires

The Bureau of Land Management oversees most of the thousands of acres of public land around here that ranchers depend on for grazing.

Ranchers have been grazing here for decades, and they say they've been fighting fire just as long.

All this land is growing the food that their cattle eat later in the year.

“And if it burns that means I have to go and buy $200 hay instead of foraging what the wind and rain brought us,” said Charlie Lyons is a rancher outside of Mountain Home, Idaho. “So the bottom line on the ranch, it can make a huge difference.”

Also, after a fire, ranchers generally must wait two years to graze, and some conservationists argue it should be even longer.

‘They had to get a motorcycle to catch us'

A lot of things can ignite a fire in the high desert of southwest Idaho – and Lyons said lots of things do. Summer lightning storms. A stray cigarette butt. Those can start a fire if they hit right. And then, Lyons said, there are things guaranteed to do the trick.

“I can think of fire that started out at Tipanuk. A guy tried to burn a badger out of hole with gasoline,” he recalled. “ And lit a fairly large fire.”

Lyons remembers this story well. And not just because of the creative badger extermination method that started it. This fire was one of the many times ranchers did what they weren't supposed to -- they fought it.

In this case, Lyons was one of them.

“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.”

Lyons took off across the desert with the BLM in hot pursuit.

“They finally caught us,” he said. “They had to get a motorcycle to catch us.”

The BLM made them stop, but Lyons said they had used all their water anyway.

“We put out a lot of fire,” he said. “I'll guarantee you that.”

Liability and lawsuits

That was one of many fights. There were heated meetings. Confrontations between packs of ranchers and BLM agents. Sometimes with fires burning in the background.

“Then I was angry,” Lyons said. “Then I was like, the fire's going. Let's get on, let's go. That was my feeling for a lot of years was just anger.”

But now all that has changed.

Credit Jessica Robinson / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network, 2014
A water tender for fighting wildfires is parked next to barn belonging to rancher Charlie Lyon near Mountain Home, Idaho.

“I think it was in the fall of 2011,” said Steve Acarregui, a fire management officer in the BLM's Boise District. “A local rancher called me that I know very well and he said, ‘Steve, is there a way we can stop fighting each other and start fighting fire?’ And he invited me to his house.”

The problem for the BLM was liability. A couple of court cases had put the fear of litigation into the hearts of federal fire managers. In 1995, the families of two volunteer firefighters in Idaho who died in a fire successfully sued the BLM. Then in 2001, the Thirtymile Fire in Washington killed four federal firefighters. The incident commander was charged with manslaughter and eventually sentenced for making false statements to investigators.

“That sent shock waves through the firefighting community,” Acarregui said. “And that's when folks really ramped up the movement to ask folks to leave the fireline and let the trained firefighters handle it.”

Training ended up being part of the solution. Government agencies had to get their firefighters and the ranchers who wanted to fight fires on the same page.

Legal firefighting entities

It turns out, Oregon already had experience with this. Government fire managers have had alliances with ranchers in the eastern part of the state going back to the 1960s. An Oregon law lets ranchers form their own firefighting entity.

It’s like a city fire department, but far from any city.

They're called Rangeland Fire Protective Associations. It sounds kind of bureaucratic, but here’s why it's important: These formal entities allow government agencies to sign legal agreements with the ranchers and supply them with actual firefighting equipment, such as water tenders, radios, and protective gear. As well as the training in how to use it.

The Oregon Department of Forestry’s Gordon Foster has been fielding calls about these associations from not just Idaho, but Washington, Wyoming and Nevada – and he says these states see an added benefit.

“These ranchers can see a fire, can grab their equipment, and head out there and put it out when it's small,” Foster explained. “The real value is being able to get to fires quick so they don't get big.”

They've taught us their language, the right acronyms to speak. And how they're going to fight the fire and how we should come in on those fires. It's been a huge difference. It's been a complete 180 from where we were.

Idaho passed a law to allow these kinds of agreements in 2012.

Since then, Charlie Lyons and over 200 other ranchers have gone to classrooms to watch Powerpoint presentations. They memorize radio frequencies and take tests on things like what an anchor point is, what an origin is, a flank, a finger, and a pocket.

“They've taught us their language, the right acronyms to speak. And how they're going to fight the fire and how we should come in on those fires,” Lyons said. “It's been a huge difference. It's been a complete 180 from where we were.”

There are now five fire protective associations in Idaho, and more in the works.

Lyons knows he can't stop all the fires. It's part of the landscape.

He has government acronyms on his mind -- like EA, environmental assessment. Another reason ranchers are out on the firelines.

They worry any of these fires could give them more bureaucratic problems -- like grazing restrictions, or threats to the habitat of endangered species.

But those are fights for another day.