Jun 21, 2018
Fire Adapted Communities on the Range: Why Rangeland Fire Protection Associations Matter
By: Emily Jane “EJ” Davis
Type: Research Synthesis
On a hot summer day, lightning splits the sky in southeastern Oregon. Smoke begins to rise. Before long, a wildfire takes off through the dry sagebrush and grass, driven by the wind. It starts small, but in this altered fire regime, invasive annual grasses, drought and other conditions may allow it to easily exceed 100,000 acres. In its path are cattle, forage and sage-grouse habitat. All of this happens in a remote landscape, so the first person on the scene is a rancher. Furnished with a radio, equipment and their local knowledge, the rancher calls in and begins initial attack. Over the next few hours, several more ranchers show up, as well as Bureau of Land Management personnel. Later that night, the fire is controlled and mop up begins. With a sigh of relief, members of the local Rangeland Fire Protection Association have another good catch under their belts.
What Is a “Rangeland Fire Protection Association”?
Rangeland Fire Protection Associations (RFPAs) are volunteer nonprofit groups of landowners trained and authorized to respond to wildfires. There are dozens of RFPAs in Oregon and Idaho, and the approach is now expanding into other western states. Rangelands in the American West have experienced increased frequency of wildfire over the past several decades. The Long Draw, Soda, Pony and Elk Fires, as well as numerous others, have affected millions of acres of rangelands. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) provides fire protection for a large proportion of these mixed-ownership lands, but its response capacity is typically centralized near communities. And ranches aren’t always “in” communities. Ranchers are therefore often much closer to fire starts. They’re also typically eager to respond to flames that threaten their livelihoods. Historically, ranchers’ involvement in fire response on BLM lands has led to conflict about liability and other concerns. RFPAs offer a new model for rangeland wildfire protection that may help address these issues.
What Makes an RFPA Possible?
The formation of an RFPA relies on willing landowners and BLM partners, and occurs through several state and federal frameworks. RFPAs receive the authority to respond to wildfires from state government statues that allow rangeland landowners to voluntarily form RFPAs as registered nonprofits in areas that lack existing state or rural wildfire protection services. States with RFPAs have also defined the rights and responsibilities of RFPAs, including minimum standards for training and protection from liability when conducting fire protection operations. States also often help RFPAs acquire heavy equipment, radios, personal protective equipment, etc. Separate arrangements are necessary for RFPAs to participate in suppression on federal lands, and are made through Memoranda of Understanding (in Oregon) or via Cooperative Fire Protection Agreements (in Idaho). The MOUs or agreements detail fire response procedures, communications protocol, and standards to be followed when acting as cooperators with the federal government.
As registered nonprofits, RFPAs are governed by their boards and bylaws and are required to hold liability insurance. Their operating budgets are typically based on annual dues paid by participating members, though state agency partners may also assist with financial or operational support. Volunteer contributions are substantial; members often use their own equipment and water sources, and invest significant time. Not all members are active in suppression; they may contribute through paying dues, reporting ignitions, providing local knowledge during fires, or other means.
What Are the Advantages of RFPAs?
A recent study conducted by Oregon State University and the University of Oregon examined four RFPAs in Oregon and Idaho and found that they offered several advantages for the effective suppression of rangeland wildfires, when suppression is in fact deemed necessary. First, RFPA members are often able to respond quickly. Their relatively distributed location across large landscapes often allows them to see and take action before federal firefighters. Some RFPA members also use ranch radio systems and staff their own ad hoc lookouts. Second, RFPA members possess local knowledge — their awareness of road locations and conditions, natural firebreaks, grazed areas, water sources, and other important information help them and the BLM better access wildfires and potential strategies. Third, many RFPA members have a strong desire and culture around helping neighbors and protecting livelihoods. Wildfires interface with their personal property and other values, such as structures, livestock and forage, as well as hunting, fishing and recreational resources. This motivates them to actively participate in suppression across ownerships.
None of these advantages are new to ranching communities, and they have long been informal assets for fighting fire. But the RFPA model is able to harness them more effectively. The formation of RFPAs as distinct organizations with recognition, guidance and policies has increased rancher presence and visibility in suppression, and has provided avenues to more systematically engage their skills and knowledge during wildfires.
What Can the RFPA Experience Tell Us About Fire Adaptation?
RFPAs offer an increasingly popular model of community-based fire management that also offers a front-line strategy for protecting sage-grouse habitat and the ranching industry. Other community-based fire management strategies that engage citizens more directly with fire, such as prescribed burn councils and landowner associations, are also growing across the country. Since these community approaches are different from the incident command system and other formalized fire management processes, they may present challenges for coordination with federal firefighters. Some issues have arisen through RFPAs, including differing interpretations of authorities and roles, disagreements about strategies and tactics, and concerns about safety. How can these be addressed, and what implications does our research about RFPAs suggest for fire adapted communities on the range?
- The desire to participate in fire preparation and response can be strong in communities with long-term and/or multigenerational attachment to natural resources. These attachments may be cultural or economic, or both, but they tend to offer strengths related to wildfire management.
- Participation in one arena of wildfire — in the RPFA case, suppression — may lead to interest in other wildfire activities such as pre-fire mitigation and post-fire recovery. For example, some ranchers in Oregon and Idaho have sought greater roles in fuels reduction projects after joining RFPAs.
- Multiple considerations need to be addressed when landowners engage in fire-related activities, including safety, liability and interactions with fire personnel. Making landowner participation roles safe and clear is important.
- RFPA members adapted in several ways as they acquired responsibility for fire response. They increased their tactical learning around effective response and gained broader understandings of the justification for professional firefighting techniques. At the same time, professional firefighters in many cases have adapted to working with RFPAs and now see them as invaluable assets. Repeated interactions that build trust within an RFPA’s supportive framework may also help foster adaptation.
- Policymakers and managers should consider how statutory basis, program design and state agency roles shape landowner expectations and community-agency relationships.
As RFPAs and other community-based approaches to wildfire management grow in popularity, there will be even more to learn from their successes and challenges, so stay tuned.
This post is based on recent exploratory research conducted by Oregon State University (principal investigator: me, Dr. Emily Jane “EJ” Davis) and the University of Oregon (co-principal investigators: Dr. Jesse Abrams and James Meacham). We examined the overall RFPA program in Oregon and Idaho, as well as four case studies. You can learn more about RFPAs and this research project online. We also created a storymap that offers an overview of RFPAs and our findings.
Dr. Davis is an assistant professor and extension specialist in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University. Her applied research and technical assistance focus on collaborative natural resource management in a variety of social and ecological settings. She also partners with the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition to support learning and practice around all-lands partnerships. She can be reached at EmilyJane[dot]Davis[at]Oregonstate[dot]edu.
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