RFPA gets organized

The Henry’s Creek Fire, at 53,000 acres, was the most devastating in the eastern Idaho highlands since records have been kept. File photo

Farmers and ranchers have managed wildfires in the eastern Idaho highlands for generations using farm equipment. Now the Henry’s Creek Rural Fire Protection Association aims to integrate them into the official fire response. Courtesy of Janie Christensen

The Henry’s Creek Fire tore through the eastern Idaho highlands exactly one year before the Aug. 21 eclipse. Fire managers worry the potential for a repeat is high. File photo

Much of the area where the Henry’s Creek Fire burned was in “no man’s land,” an area where no agency apart from the county sheriff is charged with wildfire suppression. The Henry’s Creek Rural Fire Protection Association aims to plug that gap. File photo

A new organization has arisen from the ashes of the Henry’s Creek Fire.

The fire cost millions, devastated farms and wildlife habitat, and introduced the danger of cheat grass taking over wide swaths of the area, harming grazing and making repeat fires a greater risk.

Aug. 21 marks the one-year anniversary of the ignition of the 53,000-acre fire, the most devastating in the eastern Idaho highlands since the information has been tracked. And with an influx of visitors expected to arrive for an eclipse exactly one year later, there is significant concern over a potential repeat.

A year later, the Henry’s Creek Rural Fire Protection Association has been formed, recognized and is integrating farmers and ranchers into the wildfire response system. It’s the ninth RFPA in the state.

There were two large groups of responders during Henry’s Creek.

The first was composed of municipal and wildland firefighters from throughout the region, associated with cities, rural fire districts and federal agencies. They had water trucks, air tankers, firefighters with formal training and a well-established system of incident command.

The other group was composed of farmers and ranchers. They worked to cut fire lines with disc harrows, tractors and bulldozers, following the practices their families have used to manage fire in the highlands for generations. They largely operated independently or worked with neighbors to protect threatened farms.

But communication between the two groups was limited. That allowed rumors to circulate and tempers to run high, and it meant that operational coordination between the two groups was quite limited.

Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter is a major proponent of rangeland fire protection associations, and after Henry’s Creek he predicted it would be the spark for a similar organization in the highlands.

“They’ve never had a wildfire like this,” Otter said during the tail end of the fire. “And it’s this incident, I’m sure, that’s going to give the impetus for people coming together in a protective association.”

So far, 19 farmers and ranchers have joined on to the Henry’s Creek RFPA, completing 40 hours of basic firefighting instruction.

“We’re quasi-officially firefighters,” said RFPA chairman Robert Hoff. “As farmers and ranchers, we usually fought fire with our farm equipment. We had to fight it with tractors and dozers and disks. We know how to use it, and that’s been recognized by the other organizations. But we don’t know how to coordinate manpower.”

Soon to follow will be emergency radios that RFPA members will carry, and that will allow farmers and ranchers to be increasingly integrated into official fire response.

“I think radio communication is critical, not only for informational but for safety purposes,” said Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Sarah Wheeler. “They know the area. They know the two-tracks. They know the weather. They have a very ingrained sense of what’s going on in that environment.”

“It’s going to give us a lot more efficiency in our application of fire fighting. Communication is going to be 70 percent of our effort,” Hoff added. “Both of us have skills to add that the other doesn’t. I think joining the two this way, we’ll be a lot more effective.”

Wheeler said the RFPA could be vital this year. The nation has been elevated to Preparedness Level 5, and firefighting assets are fully engaged battling fires around the West.

“We don’t have enough firefighters,” she said. “We don’t have enough air resources.”

With farmers and ranchers in place, fire detection and initial response can happen faster, she said. There won’t be as much of a delay getting fire assets to the scene of a wildfire, increasing the odds that a wildfire could be caught early and contained before it gets out of control.

Bonneville County Commissioner and RFPA board member Dave Radford said the organization makes him proud of the community.

“What makes eastern Idaho great is volunteers who step up when they see a problem,” Radford said. “I’m really looking forward to a rapid response, an all-hands-on-deck situation if fire breaks out.”

RFPAs also attempt to address what some call a loophole in state wildfire laws that make areas such as Henry’s Creek into what’s called “no man’s land.”

The state assesses annual fire suppression fees to owners with property in both forest and rangelands in order to cover the cost of wildfire fighting. But in order to qualify as rangeland, an area has to be “intermingled” with forest land. Since that’s not true in much of the eastern Idaho highlands, there’s no agency specifically tasked with wildfire suppression in the area, apart from the county sheriff.

There are about 1.8 million acres of no man’s land in southern Idaho, according to the Idaho Conservation League.

The RFPA plans to soon begin negotiating memorandums of understanding with area firefighting forces, in an effort to ensure that there’s a rapid response to fires in the eastern Idaho highlands.

Hoff said the biggest remaining hurdles for the RFPA are gaining more manpower and more equipment such as water trucks of their own. The agency is funded through membership dues, but there is also the possibility of getting state grants and surplus firefighting equipment at reduced cost. 

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.