The disagreement between an Idaho landowner and firefighters is drawing more attention. Rocky Barker, a reporter for the Idaho Statesman with a long history of writing about wildland fire, posted an article on the newspaper’s website today.
As we wrote on September 27, the owners of private property affected by the Tepee Springs Fire east of Riggins, Idaho were not pleased with the tactics and strategy being employed on the fire or their interactions with the Incident Management Team fighting the fire.
But some of the firefighters felt threatened by the land owners. According to a report filed on SAFENET, “Two of the land owners verbally accosted a BLM employee while armed with a weapon.”
The unidentified author of the SAFENET report also wrote, “…the land owners took it upon themselves to attempt a burnout and began igniting fire below crews without any communication or warning. Crews had to be pulled to safe areas….The land owners made multiple unsafe demands to fire fighters such as downhill line construction in extremely rugged terrain with fire below them, attempting burnouts on mid-slope dozer lines with no escape routes or safety zones, and to drop water from helicopters with personnel in the work zone (the land owners).”
Law enforcement officers had to be called more than once and two hot shot crews refused an assignment ordered by the incident commander due to what they thought were unsafe conditions caused by the actions of the landowners.
In Mr. Barker’s article he writes that the author of the very lengthy comment on our September 27 article left by “Landowner” was in fact Brad and Sarah Walters, the son and daughter-in-law of the owners of the Mountain View Elk Ranch on the West Fork of Lake Creek, three miles east of Riggins.
On their 1,200 acres the landowners raise elk which they allow their clients to shoot, charging $5,900 to $14,000 per animal depending on the size of the rack. Shooting a buffalo costs from $4,000 to $7,500. This kind of canned hunting of domestic animals is outlawed in Wyoming and Montana according to a 2006 article at KOMO news that featured the Walters’ ranch.
The video below is basically an audio recording of a phone conversation. It was posted on September 7 by Sarah Walters, and is described as a “conversation with Mark Giacoletto IC of the Tepee Springs Fire on 9-7-2014 at 1:30.”
Our take on the situation
All of the facts have not yet been ferreted out, but after reading what is available about this incident, here is how it appears to us. Admittedly, this is from the view of someone who was a full time wildland firefighter for 33 years, but is trying to understand both sides of what could be categorized, at this stage, as a he-said, she-said situation.
The Walters obviously wanted to protect their property which generates income from people being charged to shoot the elk they raise on their property. They probably felt that if any of the land burned it would diminish the esthetic appeal, appearance, grazing, the number of shooters they hosted, and water quality. By insisting on aggressive fire suppression tactics they may have thought that if there were any safety concerns by employing those tactics, that it was worth the risk to the firefighters. They apparently thought that there was a strong possibility that the fire would continue to spread significantly and burn their property.
The firefighters may have analyzed the fire conditions, the weather forecast, and the predicted fire behavior and decided that with the weather and the time of the year, there was little chance that the fire in that area would burn additional acres on the property. They may have also been concerned about the safety of the firefighters on the ground and in the air if they had to be committed to additional aggressive suppression activities in the rugged terrain. Mr. Barker reported that Sarah Walters was a firefighter for five years, but her expertise about fire behavior and appropriate firefighting tactics would pale in comparison to the knowledge, training, and experience available within the Type 1 Incident Management Team assigned to the fire.