AoR 129: Rangeland Fire Protection Associations with Basque rancher, Mike Guerry

Neighbors helping neighbors fight fire--this is the goal of Rangeland Fire Protection Associations (RFPAs) according to the Idaho Dept of Lands: "RFPAs empower local landowners to protect their own property and their neighbors’ where fire protection services are limited or not available. RFPAs can also respond to fires nearby that would otherwise take time for other firefighting agencies to reach." Mike Guerry, a French Basque 3rd generation rancher, has been instrumental in establishing and supporting RFPAs in Idaho. Under this cooperative arrangement, landowners and ranchers are able to coordinate with fire agencies in active firefighting.


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>> Welcome to the Art of Range, a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, Range and Livestock Specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online at

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Welcome back to the Art of Range. My guest today is Mike Guerry. Mike is a rancher in Southern Idaho who's been involved in establishing and running Rural Fire Protection Associations. And I've been in the range world for about 20 years and I sort of know what that is, but I don't know enough. If somebody asked me for a tight definition of it, I could wrestle around it, but I'm not sure I'd land on something. So, Mike, welcome to the podcast, and thanks for joining me.

>> You bet. Appreciate the opportunity to be here with you today. And yeah, and this happens with all of these acronyms that come along. RFPA actually stands for Rangeland Fire Protection Association rather than rural. I mean, rural is what everybody thinks of because we are in rural settings, rural locations. But for whatever reason, the naming was Rangeland Fire Protection Association. They are 501(c)(3) nonprofit-type entities. So they are entirely volunteer. We are not a taxing authority, like your rural fire department, or maybe you're if you're in a temporary or TPA, your Timber Protection Association, something like that. So we are different from that standpoint. We are governed differently as well. Because we are governed by an agreement we have with the Idaho Department of Lands, as well as a cooperative agreement we have with the BLM firefighters, with the district firefighters, in our instance, the Twin Falls District and the Boise District. And so, that determines how we operate is the agreements we have with those entities.

>> Thanks for the correction. And I like that title. It's easier to say than a "rural." Rangeland rolls off the lips a little bit better. I've been in Washington State since 2001 and spent part of that time working with the Washington Cattlemen's Association. And I've heard mostly horror stories from ranchers about, you know, fire response efforts that could have been a lot better if people were just talking to each other. You know, Bob over there has got an Allis-Chalmers cat and he could run a fire line 5 minutes from now instead of waiting for a truck to show up with a little boy from however far. And the list goes on and on and on. You know, these are the people that know the country. Many of them have assets. They know where the cows are. They know where the roads and gates are, and you get a fire crew that rolls in from who knows where. And it can take them a long time. And particularly, with rangeland fires that tend to be wind-driven, weather-driven, there's not a lot of time. If you blink, there went 10,000 acres. So how does all that play into how these RFPAs operate? And was that one of the objectives of establishing them to, I guess to optimize fire response?

>> Yeah, that's absolutely the background. And the background is really what created the RFPAs. You know, I've been around long enough to remember fires back in the 1960s that were, you know, we did a lot of rotational burning in our country. And I have to tell you right up front, I'm a big proponent of fire in the ecosystem. It's an important part of the ecosystem. It just needs to be manageable and mosaic. And when you get into these big wildland fires, they are neither. They are neither manageable or mosaic, and that's where the problem started happening. So okay, what was a 3,000-acre fire easily to operate around. And then, in the '70s, maybe was growing out to a 10,000-acre fire, still no big thing. In the '80s and '90s, because of changes in the grazing prescription as much as anything, we went to went away from take half, leave half to deferred grazing systems.

>> A lot more carryover fuel.

>> A lot more carryover fuel. You know, between the deferred grazing and rest rotation-type grazing. We went, again, like I said, from take half, leave half to the point that we were taking about 15 to 20% utilization, and leaving 80 to 85% of the fuels out on the range. So fires began to increase because of fuel loads. Fires in the '80s and '90s became 30, 40, 50,000 acres. Thirty, 40, probably an instance, is still operable. You know, there's still somewhat mosaic, still somewhat manageable. Not as easily managed, but somewhat. But then, came the 2000s, and this is when everything really came to a head. A small fire became 150,000 acres in our area, and a large fire became the Murphy Complex Fire, which was almost 700,000 acres. So, obviously, neither one of those was mosaic or manageable. Our winter permit -- to talk about our personal operation, our winter permit is what our cattle operation has been built around. And we were off of that winter permits 7 out of 12 years because of being burnt out multiple times. And that nearly brought our operation to its knees. Our operation isn't that Johnny-come-lately. My granddad came as a sheepherder in 1910 and started his own operation in the early '20s. And so, we've been around a day or two as well. So this type situation and the fact that, in instances, if you could get there early and get there with the right equipment and the right efforts, you could get around a lot of these fires before they got big was the drive to this. Because in years past, we helped the BLM a lot, the BLM firefighters a lot. But then, as times changed, and the litigiousness became a serious part of it, they got concerned about the fact that we weren't in communication, we wearing PPEs, we hadn't trained with them. They couldn't set a backfire because they didn't know if we're on the other side of the hill, they're going to send it right over the top of us. And I understand now much better today. After you walk in somebody else's shoes for a while, you understand why their concerns. But the other thing that was happening at that same time, and this was really difficult for the quality BLM firefighters too, is their hands were extremely tied. They were so worried about losing any sagebrush; "Oh gosh, you can't drop that blade. You can't drop that cat. You can't --" So instead of taking out 30 acres of brush, we burnt hundreds of thousands of acres of it. And that, finally, created a situation where today, you know, those that same lowboy that you're talking about rolls up with that dozer on it, and it's barely stopped before the chains are popped and we've got the dozer on the ground. And I'm not saying we're using it haphazardly, you know. We have constraints. We have constraint maps. We're very cautious about some of the attributes that are out there that we have to protect. And so, but we are much more effective because we can get there quick. And that's what the drive was. So at that time, Governor Otter was governor, and Bert Brackett, a neighbor of mine down in Three Creek area, was a senator in our legislature, and they pushed the legislation to get these RFPAs put in place. First one came in 2012, which was the Mountain Home RFPA, first one in Idaho, Oregon, and that RFPAs previous to that. We came in 2013, along with what we call our sister RFPA, which is the Saylor Creek. We're the Three Creek RFPA, our sister operation is the Saylor Creek. It basically divided the Jarvis resource area into two parts. Fire doesn't respect the dividing line. And so, we work together a lot. And then, the Waihee also came. Waihee and Black Canyon RFPAs came in that same year. So this will be our 12th fire season as an RFPA.

>>Oh, that's a fascinating history. I wanted to go back to something you said about the nature of fire as a disturbance. A lot of these natural disturbances kind of have the same pattern. If you get a little bit of it, it's just right. And if you get too much, it's too much and it's a problem. Grazing's a little bit that way. And, of course, one of the conflicts over-thinking through grazing to limit wildfire risk is that, of course, if you graze too hard, you can convert an otherwise fire-adapted, perennial grass-dominated plant community into one that is dominated by annuals and is now much more fire-prone than what it came from. But, of course, you know, now we've got invasive annual grasses nearly everywhere. And so, any soil disturbance in nearly any fire, at least, allows the possibility of some of that to move in. But as you say, there's a long, long history across North America, including up the Eastern seaboard of Native Americans lighting fires. And then, once we started having livestock producers around, we had, you know, we had Basques and people from Spain and France, and they were all lighting fires because that's what they knew. That's how you kept the grass fresh. And that's been the pattern of, I guess pastoralists and grazers for time immemorial.

>> It's absolutely correct, Tip. And that hits right at home because my grandparents came from the Basque Country in Northern Spain. As I say, my grandfather came as a sheepherder, and my dad's first generation was first generation born in this country. And yes, that is the management tool they knew. And it is still one of the top-quality management tools there is because it's cost-effective. It has a fertilization effect from the soot that you don't get in other instances like in mowing and those kind of things, if you try to use those for brush control. And so, there were a lot of reasons for it. And when it was done on a regular basis, especially like you talk about the Native Americans in our country, that's what they did. They brew -- they burnt [inaudible] fall in the late season, cool season, as they left. And that's the area they hunted next year. Because it's not any different than you and I walking up to a salad bar and there's a bowl of, two bowls of iceberg lettuce there, and one's been there for five days and the other is fresh today. You know which bowl you're going to. Well, the wildlife is the same way. And so, it drew them in. It helped them sustain their people. And so, they managed the lands as well, and they managed it with fire. And then, we continued that.

>> And that regular fire kept the shrub population at bay. The issue we've got now in both forests and sagebrush forests is that you've got enough -- you've got an age-class distribution that has lots of older trees in many places. You've got, you know, solid canopy cover in forests. We've got lots of places with dead trees because you have forests that haven't burned, haven't been harvested. They're overstocked. You've got stress, drought stress, competition for moisture stress trees that allow beetles in. Sagebrush is a little bit different in that you don't need a full canopy for it to burn like a canopy, you know, a standard placing fire. But we've got lots and lots and lots of acres with enough sagebrush that it can't burn without taking everything. And burning hot enough that it's going to kill the perennial grass.

>> No, you're absolutely right. And what we've seen is then, then what always happens, okay? And so, then we have an overreaction that, "Oh my gosh, we have a big fire." And so, we've got to absolutely protect this other decadent stand of brush that's out there. We can't manage it. We can't do any of those things because, you know, in our instance, it's the sage-grouse. And we've got to have that decadent brush for the sage-grouse. Well, I usually make the statement that we have to be careful about loving the sage-grouse to death by making that same effort to protect that. Without any management, you've taken away part of their food source for the year. Because the sage-grouse do need the brush in the fall and the winter months. But they also need the insects in the spring. They live on insects in the spring. And in the summer, they live on the forbs. Well, you don't have forbs where you have decadent sagebrush.

>> And you don't have insects where you don't have forbs.

>> Well, that's exactly right. And so, if you do burn and you have those areas like that, then you give them the smorgasbord that they need. And so, that's what we were providing, too. Back then, we darkened the sky with sagebrush at that time when we were doing that because they had everything they wanted. We've done some work. Unfortunately, because of the litigiousness again, or if you have a fire getaway, we've gone to back to mowing in some instances to regenerate some of that in our private ground up in there. And we worked with Fish and Game and NRCS to do some of the monitoring on it. We've had real good success. Not quite as good as it was with the burn, but our leg counts are as good as they are anywhere else in the state. And we're seeing some good hatches, and we're getting back some of those numbers so that we used to know. But, again, it comes down to managing it. I don't care what it is, it still has to be managed. It can't just be left alone and love to death. It has to be managed.

>> I interviewed a man that I've known for 20 years who lives in Ellensburg, who is almost 101. In fact, he might have just turned 101. But he grew up in Ekalaka, Montana, in that southeast corner. And he said they'd play a baseball game on a Sunday afternoon in the sagebrush. And when they were done, they would go out and kill some sagebrush sage-grouse with rocks or sticks, and cook up a whole mess of them in a big cast iron pan. And that's what they had for a barbeque after their ball game. He said they were everywhere.

>> They were. You know, back when I was young man in that area and we were doing the burning and that kind of thing. When people came out to hunt, they'd come out to our ranch, our Upper Ranch, and they'd camp out there and they'd just hunt the edges of the meadows. And if they weren't done by 10, 11 o'clock in the morning with all their, the birds they could have. It was an odd day because it was that simple. They didn't go out in any distance to have to hunt. You know, we'd see hands on the meadow with 12 to 16 chicks walking behind them. You know, Mother Nature is quite a quite an interesting lady in the way she can adapt her animals to what the feed source provides. And we've seen it in the coyote population, we've seen it in the sage chicken population, and deer populations. When the feed sources are there, they will have the multiple bursts. When they're not, they won't. Certainly, I don't understand all of the background of it, but she's, like I said, she's an interesting study in how she operates out there.

>> Yeah, this may be off-topic but, sometimes, these rabbit trails are the point. What are your thoughts about what happened to the sage-grouse? At least in Washington State, you know, one of the main speculations that we plowed under most of the habitat, which is fairly destructive to the animals that live in that habitat. But you've got other places where that hasn't been quite the same pattern because it was never was arable ground to begin with.

>> And that describes our area. Because we aren't an area that they, like in Eastern Idaho, where they did break out a lot of that ground into farm ground and go to farm in it, and in big acres. You know what I mean? But they were big flat acres, and so they were able to do that. Our country is rolling foothills-type country, not soils that are conducive to even dry land farming. You know, to be broke out into dry land farming or something like in the Rockland County, for example. So it wasn't conducive to that, and we still had a decline in the birds. And like I said, to me -- and I certainly probably have a tendency to oversimplify, but sometimes I think we --

>> Overcomplicate.

>> We overcomplicate. Absolutely. And you know, what I watched during my lifetime was as I said, this going away from managing these rangelands to have a smorgasbord for the birds. And both with the lack of fire and with the changes in grazing. Because in areas, like on our private ground up there, where we still maintain that take half, leave half type management, we didn't lose the birds like we did in the areas where we went to the other grazing systems, and we're leaving all this old decadent feed, which isn't something that is conducive, and then also creates the larger fires. And so, to me, that's been the two things, is the lack of management of their food source for them through grazing and fire.

>> Now, that's really interesting. I'm not sure I had thought of that before. I recall toward the end of my time at the University of Idaho, we had a symposium that I think was called "Fire and Water." And it was about some of the effects of severe wildfire on water quality, and riparian health, and some of the obvious problems with, you know, severe erosion that often times follows severe fire, and then the expected effects of sedimentation into streams. But one of the interesting case studies that was talked about, and I think I'm recalling this correctly, was a study on fish populations in British Columbia under some of these really, really, truly old growth, like 700 years old, red fur, western cedar. And, you know, close canopy, there's almost nothing in the understory. Not shrubs, not grasses, not nothing. And, yeah, in the streams; the streams had turned into essentially sterile flumes of water because there were no plants to supply the critters that would live in the stream. There's no sunlight reaching the stream. And so, there's no fish, because the fish wouldn't have anything to eat. And so, you've got this majestic old-growth forest -- and I, obviously, got nothing against old growth forest. We ought to have some of that. But the point is, if it all goes that way and stays that way, you do end up with somewhat of a biological desert with much less species diversity of all kinds. There's a lot of biomass, but every bit of it is Thuja plicata.

>> Yeah. No, that's exactly right. You know, I just read an article the other day and they were talking about CO2, you know. And now, we're working so hard right now to eliminate all the CO2. You know, we're worried about the hole in the ozone, and a lot of things that, you know, certainly, we can be concerned about but I don't know how much control we can have over. But the comment was made, you know, the plant life needs CO2 in order to create oxygen and to live. And back when we had the highest CO2 content, it was back in the era of the dinosaurs when this was basically a rainforest, all of this country. And we had huge canopies of all kinds of growth and everything like that. And so, sometimes, we get such tunnel vision that we think we know all the answers and we try to manage, micromanage something that needs to be macro managed. And it needs to be done in a mosaic fashion. And you can have some of everything. You just can't have all of one thing.

>> Yeah. Well, there's been enough circumstances where man tried to micromanage and then messed it up. Their knee-jerk reaction to that is to just don't do anything. And if you just remove people from the equation, then it's going to be, "Whatever happens must be natural, therefore it's good." And that hasn't worked so well either. And I think the thing that we lose track of is the fact that if we don't do anything, that is itself a decision that has specific consequences and we're still managing it. There's still a decision made by people that's determining an outcome. And on a lot of rangelands, that's a decision to move toward more and more sagebrush and less and less grass, and less and less forbs that these things depend on. I wish bring you back around the fire, maybe. You know, one of the things that I think there's probably some environments and, you know, the sagebrush scientists may say, there's some lower resiliency places where it's just not safe to do fire anymore. But in a lot of places, prescribed fire would still be an incredibly useful tool. And as you say, there's just some things that fire accomplishes that there's no other substitute for that particular ecological effect. But, of course, now, the risks of -- at least the risks of a private landowner, in particular, trying to do prescribed fire is prohibitive. I mean, at the minimum, the liability, at least in most western states, where if it gets off of what's under your control or your property, you're liable for suppression costs. And, of course, with a fire of any size, that's going to break somebody.

>> That's absolutely right. And, you know, that's one of the places we hope this RFPA process can evolve to, and has to some degree, but it's just beginning to, is into some of that efforts of prescribed burn and working together with BLM firefighters maybe being able to do some of this prescribed burning on both private and BLM grounds and areas where we need to do some of that type management. But to back up a little bit on the RFPAs and talking about fire, you know, the key again to keeping things manageable in size and mosaic is timing. And timing, like we talked about, getting there with the right resources quickly, have the right logistics in place so that you know how to make access to certain points, know which points are that you can probably choke that fire off. Those kind of things like that. And the thing I've tried to emphasize at any time I've done one of these type discussions is this isn't just about the RFPAs. The RFPAs aren't the give-all wonderful thing that has saved everything. They are certainly a tool in the toolbox and an important one. But what has made this thing work is the partnership we've developed with these quality BLM firefighters. These guys don't get the credit they deserve. They get the statement made about of, "Oh, they want that fire to burn and so they can make big money." Well, you know, some of the seasonals that come on that are trying to go to college, they're trying to make enough money to go to college --

>> They smell smoke and they see green.

>> -- [multiple speakers] to keep burning a little bit because it's green. That's right; smoke is green. But the leaders, the crew bosses, the engine bosses, the dozers, all those operators, you know, those guys want to get in, get a job done, and get home. They're coaching your kids' baseball team. They're -- you know, they are just like you and I. They want to sleep in their own bed. They want to shower. They want to sleep in their own bed. Yeah, it's their job. But the better they do their job, the more enjoyable it is. And they, too, want to manage that range out there and do those kind of things. I'll tell you, the last fire, last huge fire we had, which was the Kinyon Road fire in 2012, before we became established. It also, because it was allowed to go, we were out there helping with a tractor and disc, and they made us go home because of the litigious situation. But we already had permission from the highway district to be able to disc their corridor, and it -- because of that, it blew out the next day. Long story short, blew out the next day, came around, and burned out what we had stopped to keep it off of our own personal winter feed. And it burned us out for the third time. And when I got back to fire camp that night, my good friend, who was the IC on the fire for the BLM. He was absolutely in tears. He was so upset. He said, "Mike, we lost that thing and it burned your entire operation." And he said, "You and I had it. We had it." And he was so upset. So that is why I'm saying, the drive for this RFPA process has been because of the partnership. And so the BLM people soon realized that we weren't going to just be cowboys and sheepherders out there running loose. We train right with them. We have radio communication with them. We are in personal protective equipment that helps protect us. This thing is effective because we've both gone at it professionally and we've created a real professional firefighting entity. And the bottom line with this individual, and his name is Chris Anthony and he is a tremendous individual, his bottom line and my bottom line are to keep a type one or a type two team off the district. During all those big fires, we had those big teams, and those are the teams that come from the outside, good people but don't know the country, and a very, very bureaucratic, and everything they have to get done before they can get out to the fire, you know, after a fire gets that big, and the thing just kind of expands upon itself and the issues and whatnot. So our goal has been to keep a type one or a type two team off of our district with this effort. And knock on wood, we have done that for 11 fire seasons.

>> Wow. Yeah, that is quite a story. If you said it and I missed it, I really apologize. But I'm asking some questions about prescribed fire, and I know that it seems like the main function of these RFPAs is rapid wildfire response, but are they ever involved in conducting prescribed fire?

>> As you said, we were developed for initial attack. And then, also, made some changes to our working agreement to where we can remain on extended attack with certain assets if needed. So if we, for example, we've had fires when we've had three personal dozers from the RFPA, and maybe one dozer from the BLM, because the BLM dozers were spread out over many other fires. And so oftentimes we've had more assets on the fire than even the BLM has been able to provide. And in those instances, they oftentimes want us to stick around for some extended attack work. That was a morph from the beginning, too. And now we are trying to morph beyond that to where we can be involved and use it as a training process in the fence line, and draw burning that they do with the tumbleweeds in the spring of the year, to try and minimize some of the effects of those, and if we can get approval on prescribed burns in the cool season in the fall, work together -- work towards working together on that, too. So that is kind of the ultimate goal of where we would like to see this process go to, but it could really be a beneficial effort if we were able to continue to work together for many reasons. Number one, the rangeland and the resource; number two, the training ability to do those things; and three, trying to keep some of the liability down so that we can do the proper type management.

>> Yeah. And it wouldn't be using up those assets during a period of time when they need to be sitting on go because you're going to be burning it a different time of year. I'm going to betray my ignorance here, and say that in Central Washington, we mostly burn ditches in the springtime, like right now. We are visiting at the end of February, 1st of March, and over the next six weeks is when most people will be burning ditch banks, at least our neck of the woods. A lot of the forest prescribed fire happens in the fall because you've got just enough dry from the year that's been wetted down enough and temperatures have come down, and weather has changed higher, relative humidity where it's safe to do that. But on a rangeland prescribed fire, when would be the ideal time to do that, or is it different places, different years?

>> To a degree, to a degree, a little bit different, because every ecosystem is a little bit different. You've got to tailor your efforts towards that individual ecosystem. But largely, we are the same of what you just described. In our area and our farming part of our area, in the lower country, yeah, we are about to get into that, where you'll see smoke in the air everywhere because everybody is burning a ditch or a fence line or something like that to clean up and get ready for spring, for irrigation, for those kind of things. But truly in a lot of this rangeland, the fall cool season burns much like in the forest is the best timing because, again, you've got -- your dry matter, that you've got to have to carry the fire, but you've got nights now that the RH is coming up, the relative humidity is coming up at night, and the nights are longer, so if a fire does get away a little bit, they are easier catches.

>> You got lower flame height, shorter flame length?

>> Everything. Everything is in your favor.

>> Where the spring is low. Yeah.

>> Everything is in your favor, and yet you've still got the ability to do the burn, but it's a limited window. And so having additional assets, like the RFPA and the BLM working together, those kind of things, if we could be in a situation like that, we could do more of it out on the ground and do more management out on that resource. And so I think that is a multiply -- we talk a lot about multiplier effects in the RFPA process. We know that in the early part of the fire season, when the BLM has their people on board and whatnot, we are more logistically involved, you know, where is the roads, where is the water sources, you know, where is the gates, those kind of things like that. Then as fire season starts kicking up and their assets are dispersed, not only across the state of Idaho but the Western United States, we become a multiplier effect, and that continues on through the fall, because a lot of their seasonals start going back to school, and those kind of things, and so their numbers start dropping off, and they still haven't got back from all the other fires and whatnot, too. So we are that, as a multiplier effect, in that end. And that's what we could be between the two of us if we could move it on into this prescriptive burning process.

>> Yeah. That makes me wonder, we are mostly talking about all the benefits of this, I'm curious whether there has been any push back from the fire agencies. The only downside that I can think of is that there is the burden of additional communication by them, with people that they may not know very well. Has there been any push back from agencies or any downsides that you have seen?

>> There have -- there has, especially early on.

>> Yeah, you know, when we were both kind of feeling our way.

>> Right.

>> There was probably push back from our side as much as it was pushed back from their side.

>> Brand-new dance partners.

>> You got it. You got it. But that didn't last very long, especially with the BLM, IDL, and the RFPAs, where we have had a more difficult process, and we are starting to pierce that veil is with the forest service. And forest service has been really a standalone entity for years, we manage our forests, we fight our fires in our forest. We, you know, we don't really need your help. But then, because of some of these fires have got away and whatnot, now all of a sudden, well, maybe we need your help logistically, you know, maybe you can help us with the roads, water sources, those kind of things. And really, from an RFPA's standpoint, that is where we would rather be on a forest fire. We are not really excited about fighting fire in the forest with trees falling on you, and that kind of situation, and so -- but we can provide a lot of information, a lot of logistics, those kind of things.

>> Right. So you got the key to that gate?

>> Yep. And we are starting to see some of that with the Sawtooth, with the Boise, with the Payette, starting to come around to some of that. And so like anything new, like you said, new dance partner, it takes a while to realize that, okay, these guys really do have the same interest as us, and we really are trying to get the same end goal. And so it takes a while to develop, like anything else, but once it develops, it's a tremendous partnership.

>> Yeah. I assume that this is voluntary on the part of a land owner. If somebody opts in, what does the training look like to be a member of an RFPA?

>>And it is voluntary. We, again, are not a taxing authority, so we'd rely entirely on our own, either our own equipment or the maintenance we do through an assessment to our individual operations. And the equipment that is now owned by the RFPAs, and like ours, for example, we have two type 4 engines, two type 6 engines, water tender, and about a half-a-dozen military trailers with sleeping units. Those assets have been purchased with grants that we've been able to acquire. And so then, again, to move into your question, after the funding, then it becomes how do we train? And so new firefighters, new people that want to be involved in an RFPA process, have to go through about a three-day training, their first year with the BLM. And then after that, we are required to refresh our qualifications annually, but it's just about a two- to three-hour refresher that we hold in conjunction with our annual meeting, and the BLM comes, and we do that refresher for our qualifications in order to have our -- in our instances, a modified red card. And the reason I say it's modified red card is we don't have all the requirements that the BLM firefighters have, fortunately because some of us are a little older, we don't have to do the pack test of being able to pack that 45-pound pack for 3 miles in 45 minutes. But we still do a lot of training additionally with the BLM, radio training, because communication is everything. Clear and concise communication on a fire is critical. With the situational awareness that takes place out there, with things changing as fast as it does, if you don't have clear and concise communication, you have safety issues. In all of our training, the bottom line is safety issues. I don't have it in my DNA to go to anybody's spouse and tell them we didn't bring him home. We are going to do things right. We are going to fight fire, knowing that we have escape routes, knowing that we have safety zones, and those kind of things that are developed by the training that we do.

>> And that people know about. I'm not even in the world of fire, but I can't tell you how many stories I've heard about. The fire took off, and rancher Joe says, "Just try to stop me from going in and getting my cows out," and so he is running against the directive of the sheriff and the fire boss and everybody, and there might be a way to get that done right if they are involved in communicating.

>> That's exactly what we found. You know, the more they are involved, the more they understand the other side of the issue. And so one other thing that we've done is we, along with Sailor Creek, went together and got a grant from Homeland Sec -- well, in this instance, it was from the state of Idaho, the Homeland Security Grant was for our radios, but we got our own repeater, so that we utilize it. We have our own frequency on it, and we utilize it for a lot of our effort and getting ready as we respond to a fire call to do a lot of our logistics, and not tie up the BLM's frequencies as we do it. But the other side of that has been, and the benefit to that has been our guys have got more comfortable using the radio. They wouldn't use the radio on a BLM frequency for fear of being -- making the wrong statement or being made fun of, or something like that, but they're willing to do it on our repeater. And now because of that, they are comfortable on the BLM frequencies, are comfortable on the attack channels.

>> Yeah.

>> It's improved the communication immensely in those instances, and so we've even -- we've now, because it's always -- it's oftentimes difficult in the spring of the year, where people are busy whether they are farming, or calving, or branding, or whatever, to put on trainings. But if there is an early season fire, people show up. And so we use a lot of those early season fires that are easier catches, because, again, longer nights, higher RHs as training events. And we always, afterwards, have what we call an after-action review, where we talk about what did we -- what was our plan? How did it work? Where did we fail? Where did we succeed? How can we improve? Did you get the communication you needed? Did you feel safe? And discuss all these things, so we become a more professional and safer firefighting entity.

>> Yeah, that's a great story. Do you happen to know how many states have these? I'm imagining a listener in, you know, Nevada or Oregon or wherever, thinking this is a good idea. We've been talking about this for a while. We just need to get off the dime and find the right people and make it happen. How many states already have RFPAs?

>> Well, right now, three, which is Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada. And Nevada is -- actually, we were the first RFPA in Nevada because we have a little piece of our area that they call the Nevada Strip that is administered by Twin Falls BLM. So we got qualified under Nevada's regulations as well so we could be recognized as an RFPA and cross the line because our people, including myself, have operations on the Nevada side of the border. And so right now there is one other RFPA in Nevada. Nevada has a lot of VFAs, volunteer fire associations, and that's been around for a long time, and they are kind of trying to morph the two together, but that's been a slower process. Oregon was first. Oregon has run quite a lot different than we are. They have more funding from the state in a lot of their instances, and so they run a little bit differently than ours are, not quite as volunteer, but they have the longest track record of anybody. But I have done a lot of traveling, we are always willing to help, try to help establish another RFPA. We now have 10 RFPAs in Idaho and I've worked with a lot of them. We have templates that we used. My background actually is a CPA, and so I did a lot of the work to getting our tax-exempt status, because I'd done that. And so we have templates in place for what you need in order to do that, and we're willing to work with whoever. I actually spoke to a group in California last year for the University of California. And I don't know that they are going to establish RFPAs because they've got -- they started what they call the passport system, which allows a lot of their ranchers to be able to go into an area to move their livestock and whatnot. My concern a little bit, I think that it's all fine, but my concern is it didn't identify the communication issue. You know, that is what I tried to impress upon on them is you don't have -- you know, RFPAs don't have to be one-size-fits-all. We don't have that in the state of Idaho. We have a lot of differences, and I'll discuss that in a minute, but what I thought in their instances, you know, key to them would be having the PBs and the radios, you know, to be able to communicate and be able to communicate with CAL FIRE when they are on scene and those kind of things, so that people know where people are, because you've got to keep track and -- or you're going to have a travesty. But, no, we can get in back to, you know, one size does not fit all. Here in the state of Idaho, amongst the 10 RFPAs, my good buddy, Robert Oxarango, he runs the Black Canyon RFPA, and they are a very disjointed RFPA. By that, I mean they have a lot of different segments into their RFPA, intermingled with many, many rural fire departments. I think he deals with 12 to 14 rural fire departments. And so most of their work, as he will tell you, is logistics, you know, getting people on the right roads, water sources, those kind of things. He always says, "If you want to go fight fire, go down with Mike and go to Three Creek and Sailor Creek and -- because down there, you'll fight fire." And that's right because our situation is different. And so we are covering vast acreages that are unprotected, acreages other than, you know, the BLM resources that we have, and so -- but then there's differences too, for example, Shoshone Basin which is to the east of our RFPA. They actually have a pretty strong rural fire department there in the Salmon track area, and so they formed their RFPA as a wildland division of the rural fire department. And the reason for that was they had a lot of people that were interested to be involved in wildland fire, but they didn't necessarily want to do structure fire. They didn't want to do the EMS side and roll up on the horrible accident, those kind of things like that. So it was, again, an opportunity to come up with additional firefighters without them having to be involved in some of that, that they didn't want to be. So there is an opportunity to make these things what you want them to be. Again, like I said, one size does not have to fit all.

>> Mm-hmm. That's encouraging. We probably have to wrap this up, but we could talk for another hour. We'll put a link in the show notes to the legislation Idaho that established or provided the authority for these, and also some links to whatever resources there might be about RFPAs in general. If somebody was interested in just visiting about how to set it up, who to talk to, who would be the right person to talk to about that?

>> Right now, and at least until September, because he is going to retire on us, unfortunately, it would be Rick Finis with the Idaho Department of Lands. Rick has been real instrumental in helping get these established. Rick and I work together a lot. We've traveled together, working with some of these others to get him established, and he's very knowledgeable. And so, again, he is there in Boise with the Idaho Department of Lands. Myself, I am glad to help anyone as well. I'll give you my contact information as well, and I am glad to, you know, be of assistance if I can in any way and help them. My wife says I'm a little bit passionate about this. I am. But I think it's largely because when you've done something as long as I have, something new and something changes is something you can be passionate about. And because you can do so much management with it, I think that is, you know, that is why I told her, I said this has been a challenge to me and I've enjoyed that challenge. I have to laugh a little bit when I think about my dear old grandfather, who spoke with a little bit of a broken accent, and I could see when this first was starting, I could probably envision him sitting up there and having looking down and saying, "No, no, no, no. You no fire marshal, you fire maker, no fire marshal, you fire maker."

>> Yeah.

>> But I think he understood, too, after he saw what happened, because he was a big one on fire management, too. And so I come from a long line between my grandfather and my father --

>> Fire makers.

>> -- tremendous -- fire makers, but tremendous individual and tremendous range managers.

>> No, thank you, this has been encouraging, it makes me wonder why we haven't come up with this before now [brief laughter]. But it's never too late to do something right, and this sounds like the right kind of management.

>> Agreed. And again, it was brought on by what occurred.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> And that's why it didn't happen till it did.

>> Mike, thank you for your time. Thank you for listening to the Art of Range podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an email to For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes at Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission empowering rangeland managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by CAHNRS Communications in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. The project is supported by the University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

>> The views, thoughts and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own, and does not imply Washington State University's endorsement.

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Mentioned Resources

Learn more about Idaho's Rangeland Fire Protection Associations here.

And be sure to check out Idaho's Life on the Range short film on 10 years of RFPA success.

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