Idaho lawmaker blames grazing restrictions for wildfire's size

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

July 24, 2007

BOISE, Idaho -- An Idaho state lawmaker-rancher is blaming federal grazing restrictions for the size and ferocity of a giant wildfire on the Idaho-Nevada border, a contention dismissed as baseless by the leader of a conservation group.

The Murphy Complex fire has burned across nearly 975 square miles, burning up grassland and killing at least one cow that couldn't escape the flames. Two small communities were briefly under evacuation orders.

Meanwhile, a northern Idaho man says firefighters set a backfire that destroyed his $1.2 million guest ranch, including an indoor riding arena.

And another northern Idaho resident reported that his home was looted after he fled a fire near Waha.

The Murphy Complex fire killed at least one cow owned by Rep. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, although officials say more dead cattle will likely be found.

"This didn't have to happen," he told The Times-News as he stood over the charred body of a cow. Had more cattle been allowed to graze, there would have been less available fuel, he said.

"I think we need to take a hard look at basic (grazing) policy issues because what we're doing just isn't working," Brackett said.

Jon Marvel, executive director of the Idaho-based conservation group Western Watersheds Project, disagreed.

"There is no scientific evidence that cattle or sheep grazing prevents fires at any time," he said. "If ranchers have evidence that grazing prevents fires, they should produce it."

Rick Vander Voet, a field manager with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management based in Jarbidge, Nev., said BLM offices are assessing grazing allotments to determine how the land is being affected by grazing regulations. He said the assessments are expected to be finished in the next two years.

The fire was about 30 percent contained, said Mark Wilkening, fire information officer, noting rain on Wednesday was helping.

Some buildings were being defended by firefighters, and power has been restored to Murphy Hot Springs and Jarbidge, Nev., which had been the subject of evacuation orders.

Meanwhile, the owner of Boulder Creek Outfitters, about eight miles north of White Bird in northern Idaho, said a backfire started last Thursday by firefighters in their efforts against the Poe Cabin Fire was left unmonitored and, when winds came up, burned over a mountain and down the other side to destroy the six buildings at the ranch on Friday.

"The backburn is what burnt us," Tim Craig told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "There was no monitoring it and the winds came and brought it over the hill."

He said he sent six employees out of the area when he saw flames approaching and then used heavy equipment to try to build a fire line around the ranch, but was forced to flee.

"I had to jump in a vehicle and drive through a bunch of flames," he said. "It killed deer right in the road. They weren't burnt at all - just no oxygen. The fire took all the air."

He said he is considering legal action.

Jodi Kramer, a spokeswoman for the Poe Cabin Fire, said the cause of the fire is under investigation but she had no information about any backfires that might have been started.

Laura Smith, a spokeswoman for the Nez Perce National Forest, said the Poe Cabin Fire was at 59 square miles and 20 percent contained on Wednesday, with about 400 managers and firefighters assigned to the blaze.

"We've got most of the flanks protected, especially up in the northern area, so that's either defensible space or structure protection, so we're focusing now on the southern flank," she said.

At another northern Idaho fire, the Chimney Complex south of Waha, an area resident returned from a mandatory evacuation to discover that about $9,000 worth of items had been taken between Friday and Saturday, according to a Nez Perce County sheriff's report.

The report said two computers, 200 DVDs, elk and deer meat, a case of red wine, a generator, five leather jackets, clothing, two chain saws and a wood splitter were taken.

Sheriff's officers say they are investigating.

On Wednesday, the Chimney Complex of fires had burned across about 80 square miles and was 65 percent contained, officials said.

About 13 large fires were burning in the state and had consumed about 1,400 square miles, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, based in Boise.



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