The Forest Service is investigating a report by a firefighter that he and others fighting the Tepee Springs Fire near Riggins were harassed and threatened with guns by landowners.
The unidentified firefighter said the landowners were unhappy that firefighters were not directly fighting the fire that was burning in a steep watershed that drained into the Salmon River. Fire managers had decided to use an indirect strategy to fight the fire because of safety concerns.
The report, filed on the National Interagency Fire Center’s SAFENET page, is designed to give firefighters a voice in safety decisions and to direct managers to safety concerns. The report was published in the online firefighter’s web magazine Wildfire Today, along with a response from the landowners of Mountain View Elk Ranch on the West Fork of Lake Creek, three miles east of Riggins.
The incidents began Sept. 2, when fire behavior was still extreme. It ended four days later, after cooler temperatures and rain reduced the ferocity of the fire that had closed the Salmon River Road for most of the month.
“The landowners, on multiple occasions, expressed frustration towards firefighters (for) their suppression actions, which ranged from verbal threats to aggressive posturing. Law enforcement officers were called on multiple occasions and the incident eventually resulted in two of the landowners verbally accosting a BLM employee while armed with a weapon,” the firefighter said in the report. “The landowners made multiple unsafe demands to firefighters, such as downhill line construction in extremely rugged terrain with fire below them; attempting burnouts on mid-slope (bull)dozer lines with no escape routes or safety zones, and to drop water from helicopters with (the landowners) in the work zone.
“During at least one documented occasion, the landowners 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.”
Brad and Sarah Walters, the son and daughter-in-law of the elk ranch owners, published a detailed response to the firefighter’s filing on Wildfire Today. I spoke with Sarah Walters Tuesday; she said she was a firefighter for five years, and her family didn’t want firefighters to take any action that risked lives. She denied that the ranchers made any threats, started any fires or did anything wrong.
She did acknowledge family members carried sidearms when federal law enforcement officers arrived on the ranch.
“They brought the federal agents on our ground first,” Walters said. “We never threatened anybody with anything.”
Walters said they carry sidearms on the ranch 90 percent of the time.
“We said there was no reason for federal officers to be there,” she added. “We were just trying to save what was left of our animals and our ranch.”
The Tepee Springs Fire burned 95,000 acres before firefighters said it was contained Sept. 24. The number of firefighters has dropped from more than 700 to 15 today, said Brian Harris, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service.
“We’re still battling this fire,” Walters said. “They say it’s 100 percent contained. It’s not.”
Harris said there are still hot spots in the West Fork of Lake Creek and other parts of the fire. The West Fork lies in the 9 percent of the fire where firefighters have used a confinement strategy, instead of containment. There they use helicopters to drop bucketsful of water.
“For firefighter safety purposes, we did not go direct in fighting the fire in the West Fork area, so we did construct an indirect containment line to the west,” Harris said.
Later firefighters built a check fire line to keep fire from burning on to the ranch. But several refused to return because of the earlier confrontations. Walters said the fire burned through their ranch twice previously, but that their animals — including elk and bison — “are OK.”
Beth Lund, a Forest Service regional fire official from Ogden, said in the SAFENET corrective actions section that the agency “takes firefighter safety very serious, is looking in to this matter further and will provide further response and follow-up.”
When I asked the Forest Service for comment, I got this: “The issues brought forward ... are being reviewed by a group of interagency leaders. We continue to encourage open dialog about safety concerns and will follow up as deemed appropriate.”