Ranchers: Grazing could have impacted size of Soda Fire

Ranchers: Grazing could limit fire damage

BOISE-- Just over a week after the Soda Fire first sparked, it was listed at 95 percent contained Wednesday morning. A Burned Area Emergency Response team is now assessing damage and creating a plan for what happens next in the 285,361 acres burned.

Some Owhyee County ranchers believe the Soda Fire would not have grown to that size if more grazing had been allowed across the rangeland. Wyatt Prescott, executive vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association, said if cattle could graze more land, there would be less fuel for fires.

"Graze it, don't blaze it," Prescott said.

He explained that in times of drought when there is limited grass growth in the spring, ranchers are limited in where and how much cattle can graze.  He says, however, the opposite is not true. This past spring, southwestern Idaho experienced above average rain fall, thus causing more growth than years' past.

"There was never any notice saying 'There is going to be a lot of feed out there, go utilize that feed' which later becomes fuel that really spreads these wildfires," Prescott said.

The state director of the Idaho Bureau of Land Management, Tim Murphy, said the weather is to blame for the Soda Fire's spread.

"It was driven by extreme weather that we haven't seen in this part of the country in almost 90 years," Murphy said.

Murphy cited high winds, triple digit heat, and low humidity values as the cause of fire growth.

"Grazing by livestock, wild horses, elk in higher country, certainly can have an effect on fueling. Under extreme weather, fire behavior would not change at all, and it did not change," said Murphy. He also said that under these weather conditions, "Breaks in fire, whether that be highway or pasture, that's perhaps irrigated and green, will have no outcome to the ultimate perimeter of that fire."

Prescott believed there is more to the spread of the Soda Fire than high winds.

"That's a sweeping statement. Absolutely, there has been so much fuel out there because of the high moisture event we had this spring. Obviously, wind helps accelerate (the fire, but) without the fuel, the wind could not accelerate there," Prescott said.

Grazing permits are a complicated issue, driven by differences of opinion in how rangeland should be managed. The BLM must balance the issue between ranchers and those who do not want grazing in the area.

"We are in no way saying the sole problem of the Bureau of Land Management, but we do think they should take some of the blame for not using more of that sustainable resource," said Prescott.

As for future grazing, it's too soon to tell the impact of the Soda Fire.

"We are going to have to go to work at the burn area, and next spring, see what kind of moisture we get. Then we can decide how we will manage that land," said Murphy.

There is a lot of debate over grazing rights. Dee Sarton digs deeper into this issue coming up this Sunday, Aug. 23 on Viewpoint. It airs at 6:30 a.m. on KTVB, Idaho's News Channel 7.


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