Each spring, area ranchers once again plan for the coming threat of summer wildfires. They make their living from the land, using both public and private, and know this land is vulnerable. Wildfire can take the land out of use for a few years to recover from a wildfire, so each wildfire season weighs heavily on them.
Maggie Creek Ranch Manager Jon Griggs talked to me about their preparation for this summer’s wildfire season. Ranch headquarters is next to I-80 and Jon feels ranches all along this freeway corridor have suffered from wildfires. In 2007, a fire ran across the south edge of the valley, removing vegetation on Grindstone Mountain and destroying two homes on the ranch.
Jon described changes the ranch has made to the land itself, such as the green strip they recently created across private land to help stop any future fire. The ranch is working with the BLM to develop a technique where cattle would periodically graze a greenstrip to keep it more effective in stopping future fires. They are also aggressively grazing cheatgrass on private land in spring when this fire-loving grass is still green and palatable.
Ranch personnel from the Maggie Creek, Heguy and Pattani Ranches are trained members of the Lamoille Volunteer Fire Department. A fire department pumper truck is stationed at the Maggie Creek Ranch to be ready for any fires in that area. The ranch owns a bulldozer that has been used in numerous fires. They also recently purchased a water truck, seen in the above photo. The ranch uses the dozer and water truck for various purposes throughout the year but during the height of wildfire season, these machines are kept ready for a fast fire response.
Ranch personnel are not meant to fight fires over the long term. Agency fire crews do that job, while the value of ranch firefighters is a fast response to a lightning-caused fire. The 2007 wildfire started from a lightning strike that smoldered overnight and took off during the next windy afternoon. Jon said if they can quickly put out that one burning juniper or sagebrush clump, they can hopefully prevent a large fire. The most dreaded event is a dry lightning system that sparks 50 small fires across the county. Fast response teams may put out 49 fires but miss that one takes off and burns thousands of acres of vegetation.
During the fire season, Jon watches the fire weather predictions. These are available through the local weather service website, along with red flag warnings for especially dangerous days.
Another form of preparedness involves Jon’s work as an area rancher liaison. When a wildfire begins, Jon acts as a go between with ranchers and firefighters. A number of these liaisons were setup across Elko County after a large fire. The agency firefighting teams were not from the area and did not understand the value of the land they were protecting. They also did not communicate with locals during the fire. Now, liaisons talk to firefighters about especially important areas.
The rancher liaisons have a lot of experience in wildfires and they attend daily firefighting planning meetings. They stay in contact with area ranchers so everyone is kept current on what is happening with the fire. This system has worked well and its use is spreading across the West.