Rangeland Fire Protection Associations – An Important Tool, Now and in the Future

Emily Jane Davis, Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist, Oregon State University Extension, & Sonia A. Hall, Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, Washington State University

Cheatgrass seedheads in the foreground, mixed with medusahead spikes.
Annual invasive grasses like cheatgrass, here appearing with a typical reddish tint, increase fuel loads and favor bigger fires, especially as the climate changes. Photo: Darrell Kilgore.

Wildfires in rangeland systems across the western United States, including the intermountain Northwest, are not going away. If anything, research and climate change modeling suggest that wildfire activity will continue to increase (Abatzoglou and Kolden 2011), and conditions support expansion of the annual invasive grasses, like cheatgrass, that increase fuel loads and favor bigger fires (Bradley et al. 2016). Yet wildfires are already an issue in these rangelands systems, for ranchers, natural resource managers, and conservationists worried about species like Greater sage grouse. So, tools that are helping make a difference now can become the path forward for addressing these issues in the future as well.

Wildfire impacts cross ownership boundaries, and ranchers are often closest to fires when they start. In the sagebrush steppe landscapes of eastern Oregon and Idaho, growing numbers of ranchers participate in Rangeland Fire Protection Associations (RFPAs) to help minimize these impacts. RFPAs are associations of volunteer wildland firefighters who receive the resources, training, and authority to respond to wildfires on private and state lands within their jurisdictions (Stasiewicz and Paveglio 2017). Through cooperative agreements, these associations can also respond on federal lands, such as those managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Although a few RFPAs developed in Oregon prior to the 1990s, they have more recently proliferated across Oregon and Idaho due to increased concern about wildfire impacts on Greater sage-grouse habitat and ranching communities.

Historically, fire suppression responsibilities followed jurisdictional lines. The RFPA model can facilitate more rapid and collaborative responses across landscapes. Because members live and work on these lands, RFPAs have the potential to reduce the number of acres burned by catching small fires quickly. Case studies conducted by Oregon State University and the University of Oregon found that RFPAs harnessed ranchers’ in-depth local knowledge, resources and equipment, spatial distribution across remote areas, and strong motivation to protect local properties, cattle, and forage (Davis et al. 2017). These advantages already existed, but the legal framework, training, and authorities of an RFPA model created a more effective structure for applying them to wildfire response in an organized fashion.

Multiple trucks with firefighters on a severely burned area
The RFPA model can facilitate more rapid and collaborative responses across landscapes. Photo: ODF RFPA file photo.

Research on these RFPAs also revealed some lingering challenges (Abrams et al. 2018; Davis et al. 2020). These included incidents of disagreement about suppression tactics and strategies, communications and safety standards, and values at risk. For example, there were instances in which ranchers perceived BLM suppression approaches as insufficiently aggressive in fighting a fire, or times when BLM fire managers felt that their protocols for protection and equipment were not consistently followed. Our research team was particularly interested in understanding what makes RFPAs effective. We found that, over time, agency-RFPA relationships improved in several ways, contributing to the overall effectiveness of this model. First, the time that RFPA members and agency personnel spent together dur­ing fire events and trainings strengthened interpersonal relationships, created shared experiences and learning, and built joint knowledge. This shared time also enabled RFPA members to increase their under­standing of federal fire managers’ decision processes and rationales for interpreting fire behavior and choosing suppression tactics. In turn, agency personnel better understood how RFPA members’ local knowledge could aid suppres­sion efforts and how RFPA members could contribute skills, such as heavy equipment operation.

Improvements in the capacity and culture of individual RFPAs were also important to their ability to productively partner with federal agencies. RFPAs with strong leadership from their chairperson, board, or other leaders had organizational and administrative robustness. This included well-established and maintained systems for im­portant functions such as bookkeeping, member training records, and tracking of in-kind and vol­unteer contributions. Setting a mutually-respectful tone for interactions with the RFPA and its agency partners was also important.

Finally, deliberate efforts to develop more agreement and structure for RFPA-agency collaboration may be important. In Harney County, Oregon, a dedicated liaison has been established between the Bureau of Land Management and the five RFPAs in the county, in part thanks to a broad dialogue among stakeholders fostered by the Harney County Wildfire Collaborative. As Harney County has a unique density of RFPAs and rangeland fire occurrence, solutions developed there may not always apply elsewhere, but the dedicated personnel have allowed for more consistent communication across agencies and RFPA members.

The rise of RFPAs and rancher engagement in fire suppression suggests that many in working-lands communities desire active roles in fire preparation and response. Effective organizational structures, experience, learning, and relationships may enable participation and positive outcomes. Investing in pursuing these outcomes will only become more important as we continue to see the expected increases in fire activity as the climate changes.

This article is adapted from two sidebars in an Extension publication describing the experience of Brenda and Tony Richards in the Soda Fire in 2015. The full publication is referenced below, and is available online, with its accompanying video, at CSANR Case Studies.

References:

Hall, S.A., Hudson, T.D., Jensen, K.S., Neibergs, J.S., Reeves, M.C., Yorgey, G.G., Davis, E.J.  2020. Building Resilience Through Engagement: Brenda and Tony Richards. Rancher-to-Rancher Case Study Series: Increasing Resilience among Ranchers in the Pacific Northwest. Pacific Northwest Extension Publication No. PNW737. Online Access

Abatzoglou JT, Kolden CA. 2011. Climate change in western US deserts: potential for increased wildfire and invasive annual grasses. Rangeland Ecology and Management 64, 471–478. doi:10.2111/REM-D-09-00151.1

Abrams, J., K. Wollstein, and E.J. Davis. 2018. State Lines, Fire Lines, and Lines of Authority: Rangeland Fire Management and Bottom-Up Cooperative Federalism. Land Use Policy 75: 252–259.

Bradley, B.A., Curtis, C.A. and Chambers, J.C., 2016. Bromus response to climate and projected changes with climate change. Chapter 9 in Germino, MJ., Chambers, J.C., Brown, C.S. Exotic brome-grasses in arid and semiarid ecosystems of the western US – Causes, Consequences and Management Implications. Springer International Publishing, Cham, Switzerland. pp. 257-274.

Davis, E.J., J. Abrams, K. Wollstein, and J.E. Meacham. 2017. Rangeland Fire Protection Associations: An Alternative Model for Wildfire Response. Ecosystem Workforce Program Working Paper #80. Institute for a Sustainable Environment, University of Oregon. Online Access 

Davis, E.J., Abrams, J. and Wollstein, K., 2020. Rangeland Fire Protection Associations as disaster response organisations. Disasters, 44(3), pp.435-454.

Stasiewicz, A.M., and T.B. Paveglio. 2017. Factors Influencing the Development of Rangeland Fire Protection Associations: Exploring Fire Mitigation Programs for Rural, Resource-Based Communities. Society and Natural Resources 30: 627–641.