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A New Type of Nonprofit

Rangeland Fire Protection Agencies (RFPAs) are likely not a type of nonprofit you have heard of before. RFPAs are nonprofit organizations composed of all-volunteer private citizens, typically ranchers and farmers, who respond to fires on private and state lands in remote landscapes where there is little to no existing support from federal, state, or local fire protection agencies.

A Brief History

RFPAs pop up in twentieth century America. Though the early iterations were informal and not called RFPAs, use of ranchers and farmers to combat flames in remote habitats was common, and even encouraged, for much of American history. Then and now, existing agencies cannot cover  all the remote lands of the Pacific Northwest. RFPAs and their members, by nature of where they live, were close to fire starts, allowing for quick response times, and were deeply invested in protecting ecosystems because their own livelihood depended on it. Flames that broke out on remote federal or state lands, if not addressed, could spread to harm or destroy valuable resources and land. However, after liability concerns and heated disputes over land rights, organizations like RFPAs were banned, and government agencies were prohibited from utilizing RFPAs. This was a futile decision.

The government prohibition on RFPAs not only created tensions between ranchers and government officials when government agencies excluded ranchers from suppression activities that threatened their own lands, it also served to make wildfire response more ineffective by removing a key piece of the firefighting puzzle. Despite this, RFPAs never stopped operating; or rather, started operating outside the blessing of the federal organizations like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). In fact, because of the crucial role these informal groups played in fire management, the BLM itself never fully stopped working with RFPAs. Radio networks maintained by rural citizens, close proximity to wildfire outbreaks, and local knowledge of landscapes made these rag-tag group of rural citizens key parts of firefighting infrastructure.

Adding to the burden of federal and state firefighting agencies, forest practices over the next few decades only made their jobs more difficult. Government policy towards fire suppression changed over the years to include less fire management (control burns, brush and undergrowth clearing, fire-proofing infrastructure, etc.) and instead turned to suppressing every fire that broke out, even those fires that are beneficial long term. Adding in climate change and an explosion of people leaving urban areas for more rural undeveloped lands, government ability to protect life and property in wildlands began to fall short of what is needed. The increasing violence of fires has seen a mirror increase in costs associated with fires, and worse still, an increase in lost human lives.

Starting in the 1990s, seeing ballooning costs and damage, states in the Pacific Northwest started to create stronger legal avenues for RFPAs to exist on the state level. Oregon, Idaho, and Nevada have created statutory provision giving authority to RFPAs. As the last PNW holdout, Washington state legislators have proposed the codification of RFPAs in HB1188.

How are RFPAs Different?

Though RFPAs will operate similar to regular nonprofits (meaning governed by bylaws, and guided by the Board of Directors) RFPAs will differ from regular nonprofits in a few respects. First, RFPAs are unique because of how they are overseen by the state. HB1188 specifically creates the role of a “Fire Liaison” as a part of the Department of Natural Resources for the purpose of providing regulatory oversight as well as a channel of communication. Second, in addition to traditional nonprofit governance rules, RFPAs are also subject to strict state regulations for fire training, equipment, insurance, and existing RFPAs must submit to state entities an annual operating plan outlining chain of command, organizational structure, dispatch procedure, safety, etc. Such strict standard can be burdensome on a nonprofit and may be unnecessary because RFPAs role, as outlined by HB1188, is mainly supportive to traditional firefighters (clearing overgrown areas, maintaining water sources, early warning and early response, etc.). Third, this bill does empower local citizens as much as a cursory reading of the Bill suggest. RFPAs are still required to formally contract with existing fire agencies under RCW 52.12.160, which gives discretion to state agencies on how to design their contracts. As it stands, the RCW requires private property owners in unprotected lands to annex themselves into existing fire agencies through a contract, something the fire agencies themselves can refuse to sign on to.

HB1188 leaves unclear how the RFPAs are going to contract with government agencies though other states may offer some clarity. Oregon agencies have a Memorandum of Understanding Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with their RFPAs. These MOUs are not legally binding but outline the party’s agreement to cooperate and consult with one another. Though MOUs do provide for easier utilization of private citizens by relaxing strict the requirements of equipment and training formal firefighting agencies are held to, there are significant concerns about these RFPAs meeting industry standards of safety and effectiveness. Failure to reach certain standards can sometimes negate an RFPAs ability to work with federal agencies.

In Idaho, however, RFPAs are held to much more formal Cooperative Fire Protection Agreements (CA). Though CAs do make it more difficult to bring in nonprofits by imposing strict standards for equipment, training, insurance, and organizational structure, CAs have served to create comprehensive rules, regulations, and practices among groups statewide, allowing RFPAs from every corner of Idaho to seamlessly respond to fires. However, this method presents serious financial and expertise hurdles in front of small nonprofit groups looking to create an RFPA.

Though much is left to be decided about RFPAs, HB1188’s creations serves both the state’s need for more fire response manpower while not overburdening the state’s taxpayers. In fact, RFPAs in Oregon and Idaho have shown to be an effective way to address lacking fire-fighting response capabilities. More importantly, HB1188 helps legitimizes many actions taken by rural citizens who are going to keep fighting the fires that threaten them and their livelihoods.

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