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Caribou County residents explore interest in rangeland fire protection association

Mike Guerry, a rancher from Castleford, speaks to Caribou County residents Jan. 10 during a meeting held to explore the community’s interest in forming a rangeland fire protection association.

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

SODA SPRINGS – Some people in the Soda Springs area are gauging the community’s interest in forming a rangeland fire protection association. 

An RFPA is a voluntary, nonprofit organization that is qualified to help state and federal agencies suppress range fires.

Caribou County Farm Bureau held a meeting in Soda Springs Jan. 10 to educate people about RFPAs and gauge their interest in forming one. 

“We’re trying to educate our community about these associations so if people want to form one, they can,” said Reed Crandall, a rancher who is leading the effort. 

Idaho’s first RFPA was formed by a group of Mountain Home ranchers in 2012. Since then, eight other RFPAs have formed across southern and eastern Idaho. They mostly consist of ranchers and farmers who are trained and qualified to assist state and federal firefighters respond to range fires.

Combined, they protect 1.8 million acres of private rangeland that was previously unprotected and they also provide secondary protection on 7.2 million acres of federal and state land. 

In 2018, these RFPAs responded to 54 fires.

During the Jan. 10 meeting, Mike Guerry, a rancher from Castleford in the Magic Valley area, said RFPAs have been a big blessing to ranchers in his area. 

Guerry is a member of both the Three Creek and Saylor Creek RFPAs, which formed in 2013, and he is chairman of Three Creek.  

Guerry said that from 2005 to 2012, there were seven different fires of more than 100,000 acres, the effects of which severely hampered his and other ranching operations. 

“It was bringing our operation to its knees,” he said. 

In the six years the Three Creek and Saylor Creek RFPAs have been in place, there have been no range fires over 60,000 acres, he said. 

“Its brought some stability to our operation,” he said of the fact there hasn’t been any huge range fires since the RFPAs formed. “I’m just a microcosm of the whole thing. That’s true of everybody.”

Guerry said his RFPA stands ready to help Caribou County residents form their own if they choose to. That could include providing a template for bylaws and agreements with state and federal agencies.

“We are here to help in any way ... so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he said. 

After an RFPA forms as a non-profit organization, it enters into a cooperative agreement with the Idaho Department of Lands, said Rick Finis, IDL’s southern Idaho fire program liaison. 

That provides the avenue for the RFPA to enter into agreements with federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM provides the training that qualifies RFPA members to work in a coordinated fashion with state and federal agencies.

More than 400 RFPA members have been trained to fight range fires and as funding has been available, IDL has provided about $700 worth of personal protective equipment for each trained firefighter.

While RFPAs assist IDL in fighting fires, they work mostly with the BLM.

“Each RFPA is unique,” Finis said. “It is locally run. It is not run by the state or BLM. It is run by you.”

He said one of the big benefits of an RFPA is that it allows locals to respond quickly and in a coordinated fashion to help protect their own livelihoods. 

“It gets a trained firefighter who knows the area on a fire quickly,” Finis said. “Their strongest suit is the intelligence and information they have about the area.”

Ranchers or farmers fighting range fires isn’t something new. They have done that for decades. 

But Finis and Guerry both said that before the RFPAs were formed, ranchers and state and federal agencies were not on the same page and their efforts weren’t coordinated. 

“Everybody is on the same page now,” Finis said. “Now that they’re working together, it is a much safer, coordinated and efficient effort.” 

Before the RFPAs were formed, neither side was communicating with the other, Guerry said. 

“We were putting people at risk because neither side knew where the other was,” he said.

Before the RFPAs were formed, there was a lot of apprehension on both sides about how the partnership would work, Guerry said. But that has changed and now a mutual trust has developed between the association members and state and federal firefighters. 

“We have developed confidence in each other,” he said. 

Many of the RFPA members have their own firefighting equipment, including water trucks, dozers and discs. 

The IDL also provides the association with additional equipment that it can acquire. For example, IDL provided seven RFPAs with fire engines last year. 

Interest in forming an RFPA has also been expressed in the Arbon Valley area south of American Falls as well as the Richfield area south of Hailey. 

In his first State of the State address Jan. 7, Gov. Brad Little, a rancher, praised the work of the RFPAs. 

“The initial attack and intel they provide on more than 9 million acres of Idaho’s rangeland have given Idaho significantly improved chances against the devastation of large wildfires,” he said. 

Former Gov. Butch Otter, also a rancher, also gave the RFPAs an annual shout-out in his State of the State addresses.

The Idaho Legislature provided several hundred thousand dollars to help the RFPAs get started. 

“We’ve had tremendous support from the governor and legislature and we obviously appreciate that,” Guerry said. 

To find out more about the RFPA effort in the Soda Springs area, call Crandall at (208) 221-0570.