In some rural parts of the state, Oregon residents have formed Rangeland Fire Protection Associations. Volunteers operate fire trucks and work with the Oregon Department of Forestry to get training and equipment. The associations allow residents to manage fires when they’re small. Residents pay dues to help fund the associations. Jacob Gear is an RFPA liaison with the Burns Interagency Fire Zone. Dale Martin is the president of the Silver Creek RFPA. They join us with details.

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The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud, I’m Dave Miller. We turn now to what is essentially an official version of DIY wildfire protection. Oregon is one of a handful of Western states with a law that lets residents band together to create rangeland fire protection associations. These groups allow residents to manage rangeland fires when they’re small. Volunteers operate fire trucks, and work with the Oregon Department of Forestry to get training and equipment. Local residents pay dues to help fund the associations. Dale Martin is the president of the Silver Creek Rangeland Fire Protection Association in Harney County. Jacob Gear is a fire management specialist with the Burns Interagency Fire Zone, and the liaison between these citizen groups and state and federal agencies. They both join me now. Jacob Gear and Dale Martin, welcome.

Jacob Gear: Thanks for having me.

Dale Martin: Thank you.

Miller: Jacob Gear first. I gave a short version of these RFPAs, rangeland fire protection associations. What’s your definition of them?

Gear: Well, the whole concept is neighbors helping neighbors. As you kind of said, it’s groups of people getting together to help with fire protection, places that don’t necessarily have it. In rural Harney County, for example, the fire districts or the fire departments are only within the city boundaries. Outside of that, there’s no fire protection. There is on the public lands with the federal agencies.

Miller: And that’s where these associations come in. Dale Martin, why did you decide to start the association in the Silver Creek area, now more than 20 years ago?

Martin: The main reason why is; I like my neighbors. And if we can get fire trucks scattered around the community, we can really help each other out. And that’s what I think it’s all about, is helping each other out, and working with each other, and getting fires out quick. We can get out to the fire really quick, and then the BLM come out and join with us, and we work as a unit together. And it seems to really work pretty good.

Miller: You said that one of the ideas is to have equipment sprinkled around the area. How much equipment do you have right now? How many fire trucks or other pieces of firefighting equipment?

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Martin: We have 21 pieces. We have nine humvees. We’ve got eight trucks. We’ve got a D7 Cat with a lowboy. I’ve got three slip-ins. And we’ve got pickup and trailers. And then we have our own water source right at my store there that can fill water trucks up. I have an 8,000 gallon tender. Everybody loves that, because you take the water with you when you go there.

Miller: I have no idea how much all that would cost if you put it together. But I imagine it’s a lot. And I imagine that the community there banded together. You didn’t have enough money to buy all that yourself, am I right?

Martin: Oh no. This is through State Forestry. They help us get all this stuff, they arrange to get it and bring it to us. And some stuff that we have will be given to us, and some stuff that we have to return when we use it no more. Our farmers pay so much per acre of land, and we use that money to work with. Mainly our firefighting equipment comes through State Forestry.

Miller: Jacob Gear, there was a striking quote in a recent article about different versions of residents all around the west fighting fires themselves. The article had more of a focus on people who aren’t in these kinds of official associations, but instead are, say, a cannabis farmer in northern California who’s fighting fires himself, and maybe not heeding evacuation orders. But there was a quote from the Deputy Chief Nick Schuler, a spokesman for CAL FIRE, that’s California’s firefighting agency. He said this: “A person who has a gun and can fly in a helicopter doesn’t make them trained for war. And just because the civilian is able to buy a fire engine does not make them properly trained to utilize it.” What kind of training goes into Oregon’s Fire Protection Associations?

Gear: So each member, the Oregon Department of Forestry and the federal agencies will put on a two day class. It’s kind of a condensed version of what we send our folks through. In that two day training, they learn about fire behavior and fire weather, things to watch out for. And then they learn the basics of firefighting, and the incident command system and how to fit within that organization, and how it operates. How to use radios and that kind of stuff, so that they’re more prepared so that we can work together. And that’s part of the trainings we do every year. We do refresher training. And then that way, when we do have a fire, they’re not a hindrance having the RFPAs, because they actually take the training and they work with us, whereas somebody that maybe just shows up and doesn’t take any training, doesn’t have any idea what’s going on or how to fit within the incident command system, that’s going to make it a lot harder having that individual out there trying to help.

Miller: The High Desert Partnership, on their website, they say that there was a time not long ago when relationships between rangeland fire protection associations and government agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, when they were strained. What was behind that strain?

Gear: Well, I think anytime you have large fires, relationships are going to be strained. Because there’s always gonna be people, no matter what community you’re in, that think things should have been done differently. One of the best things about having the RFPAs out there is they’re with us the whole time. We’re making decisions together. So they can help be that voice in the community that we’re trying our best. We’re all trying and we’re working together. And that buys a lot. I think that that helps change the narrative.

Miller: Dale Martin, has helping to first create and then run your particular rangeland fire protection association, has that given you a different understanding of state or federal bureaucrats, whether it’s Oregon Department of Forestry, or folks from the BLM?

Martin: Oh, most certainly it has. I really enjoy working with them. I think that the system will work well if we all work together. That’s my main concern is working with them, not against them.

Miller: Jacob Gear, what is an example of the kind of rangeland fire that an RFPA would be appropriate for? And what kinds are not right for this relatively trained but still not truly professional outfit?

Gear: You know, for me the biggest benefit is definitely initial attack. They’ll talk about the fact that they’ve got folks all over the county spread out. We don’t have that ability to have fire engines or equipment from the public agencies all over all the counties. So that’s one of the most useful things. And the local knowledge. Even when a fire gets large, ideally even for us as a local entity, when an incident management team or something were to come into a large fire, we’re there to help guide them and go back to initial attack, because we’re bringing in extra equipment to cover the big fire so that we can then go back to our regular staffing to be able to catch the next one so it doesn’t go big. And I think the RFPA concept fits into that too. Once the fire gets big, we want you at the table, we want you in the tent, helping with the planning and what’s going on. But we need to be available to catch the next fire.

Miller: Dale Martin, I understand that you are 83 years old right now. Do you still go out on fires?

Martin: I’m 82. I do go out on fires. I’ll take my fire trucks, I’ll drive out there, and have the younger guys run, man the hoses and stuff. And I know this area pretty well myself, so I know we go out on a lot of single tree fires. And one thing we do not do and we’re not trained to do is to fight car fires. That’s a dangerous situation of the fumes and stuff that comes from the trucks. We let the trained firefighters fight these. We will go to these fires, and we will put the grassland out. But we do not fight the pickup and car fires. I’ve had several this year to that effect. We just go out and protect the land around the cars, and we try to help in that way. That’s one thing we’re not trained for, is fighting house fires and car fires.

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