Ranchers are well positioned and have the understanding of the land necessary to provide quick and effective initial responses to wildfire outbreaks. Rangeland Fire Protection Associations (RFPAs) are largely comprised of farmers and ranchers who use their skill, knowledge of the land and expedient response times to assist with firefighting efforts on the range. Transfers of fire equipment no longer used by federal agencies to local cooperators further fuel these partnerships between local landowners and communities, and state and federal agencies.
RFPAs are partnerships between ranchers, professionally trained and enabled to use interagency fire suppression resources, and federal and state agencies, including the U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Idaho Department of Lands (IDL). Quick wildfire response that can protect lives, forage and sage-grouse and other wildlife habitat are among the benefits of empowering RFPAs. According to IDL data, 315 RFPA members (ranchers, farmers and their employees) worked to protect more than 8.8 million acres in Idaho during the 2018 fire season.
Recently, my staff took part in an event celebrating BLM Twin Falls District’s transfer of five fire engines to rural, fire-readiness partners: the Bliss Rural Fire District; Notch Butte Rangeland Fire Protection Association; Raft River Rural Fire Protection District; Saylor Creek Rangeland Fire Protection Association; and Shoshone Basin Rangeland Fire Protection Association. BLM Associate State Director Peter Ditton noted that without the assistance of Rural Fire Protection Districts and RFPAs, the wildfires these organizations helped stop would have been substantially larger and burned a lot more acres. BLM Idaho reports the agency is transferring 35 wildland fire engines to local fire departments and RFPAs by late this year or early in 2020. The agency has also been transferring hose, shovels, radios, drip torches, fire pants, sleeping bags, gear bags, goggles and other equipment.
I am a proponent of enabling transfers of used BLM equipment via the Rural Fire Readiness Program to organizations like RFPAs in addition to training for local cooperators and worked with fellow Senator James E. Risch (R-Idaho) and others to include legislative language providing this authority in legislation enacted into law. Utilizing fire equipment that would otherwise be discarded extends the value to taxpayers and gets needed resources to often cash-strapped, rural communities that can use the equipment to keep wildfires in check and Idahoans safe.
Empowering and equipping local wildfire cooperators is an important part of the ongoing effort to prepare for wildfire response and reduce the threat of wildfires. This also includes my work with congressional colleagues to enact bipartisan legislation that will enable federal agencies to respond to wildfires as they would other natural disasters and end fire borrowing. Unlike responding to other natural disasters, federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and BLM often find the actual expenditures for fighting wildfires far exceed estimates, which has resulted in the diversion of funds from important forest health projects that help prevent fires. Thanks to this law, moving forward, agencies will have access to the resources necessary to keep forests healthy, protect watersheds and reduce catastrophic wildfire.
We do not have to look far for examples of where quick action and local partnerships made life-and-resource-saving differences. Last year, neighbors worked together with firefighters to move cattle and help build firebreaks to stop the Grassy Ridge Fire that threatened Dubois--one of the countless times the great people of Idaho have stepped in to help each other. Fueling partnerships that enable timely and effective wildfire responses support local firefighting while reducing fire risk. Simply put, these collaborative efforts just make good sense.