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Ranchers Blame Federal Policy for Grazing Land Wildfire In Idaho, Oregon

Olivia Weitz
Northwest News Network
The Soda Fire has burned more than 400 square miles -- most of it federally-managed grazing land.

The Soda Fire in southwest Idaho and eastern Oregon has burned more than 400 square miles -- most of it federally-managed grazing land. Extreme temperatures fueled the Soda Fire. But farmers and ranchers are also blaming federal policy.

The Soda Fire jumped across a major highway that connects southern Idaho to Oregon and Nevada. When it happened, Alan Greybell was there.

“The flames were so hot that the flames themselves were reaching across the road,” he said.

Greybell, a hog farmer and volunteer traffic controller, got out of his car. His job that day was to tell people that Highway 95 was now closed.

“Once it started jumping back and forth across the highway, there was no slowing it down,” Greybell said, “There was no stopping it.

It was 103 degrees and winds were blowing 45 miles per hour. Flames were screaming across the high desert landscape.

“The things that I noticed going up Highway 95, where the fire actually crossed the road, was that it wasn’t from flying embers, and so on,” Greybell said.

He said it was tall grass and vegetation fueling the fire. Several ranchers had asked federal land managers to let their cattle keep grazing that area. But they were told no -- partly because of protections for the sage grouse. Greybell said the government should have let all that fuel be consumed by cattle instead of by flames.

‘An extraordinarily extreme fire'

This strikes a chord with local ranchers. They believe if cattle ate more grass, wildfires would be less severe. It’s a hashtag now: #GrazeItDontBlazeIt.

Greybell posted about it on Facebook and went viral, with 2,500 “likes” and 2,000 “shares.” The conversation continued on the Idaho Cattle Association page. Now, the federal Bureau of Land Management has joined the conversation.

“This was an extraordinarily extreme fire,” Idaho BLM State Director Tim Murphy said. His department manages grazing allotments for Idaho ranchers. Murphy said weather conditions were the main factor in the Soda Fire.

“Under any grazing management scenario you could outline -- there’s going to be vegetative matter left,” he said. “And under 45 knot winds, low humidity, and high temperatures, even a light amount of fuel is gonna carry that fire.”

The BLM has reduced grazing land in Idaho by 17 percent over a 35-year period. And ranchers said for them, fires have been worsening that entire time. One southwestern Idaho fire in the last decade was the third largest in U.S. history.

Murphy hears these ranchers’ concerns and reiterates his position.

“What drove this fire was weather, not fuel loading,” he said.

Reduced grazing on BLM land

Mid-summer temperatures in southwestern Idaho have been higher than average this year. Murphy said the BLM considers climate data when it decides how flexible to be with grazing permits.

Mary Blackstock, a fifth-generation rancher, is looking for any cattle from her herd of 500, and helping other ranchers find theirs. She takes a moment to look over at the charred hillside. She said before it burned, it was covered with a ton of grass.

“It was thick and heavy fueled,” Blackstock said. “It had to have been three, probably three feet.”

When there’s leftover grass like that, often, ranchers will request to graze longer. The Blackstocks would have liked to stay longer this year. But their time was limited by the BLM.

“They’re on their grazing plan, and when they say you have to be off you have to basically get up and get off,” Blackstock said.

Now it will be nearly two years until her cattle could graze on land burned in the Soda Fire. The BLM has also proposed reducing grazing in some of these parts by 40 percent. Ranchers are appealing that decision.