Washington Ranchers Push To Create Fire Fighting Teams In 'No Man's Lands'


By Courtney Flatt, KUOW (WA)

Sep 09, 2019


It was a hot, dry summer afternoon when Molly Linville glanced out her front windows and noticed a rare storm pushing down the narrow valley where she raises cattle.


Then came five lightning strikes in quick succession. And five plumes of smoke.


She thought things would be OK. She was wrong.


“I wasn’t as concerned as I should have been from the get-go,” Linville said.


At that moment, her 125 cattle were all in the southern end of the ranch, where the flames were closing in.


“The fire hit that heavy fuel, and the wind started. It just blew up,” she said.


With her border collie, Stinker, she jogged the cows two miles back to her house. The cattle were tired but safe. It was a different story for the surrounding ranch land and fences.


What became known as the Sutherland Canyon Fire eventually burned more than 47,000 acres in central Washington in June 2017. It jumped the steep cliffs behind Linville’s ranch – something no one thought it would do. “I don’t want to overblow it, but it was (like) Dante’s Inferno. Fifty-foot flame lengths. It was going so fast, it was shocking,” Linville said.


From the beginning, this fire was harder to fight because Linville’s valley, called Moses Coulee, is what’s known as an unprotected area. There are no specific firefighting agencies assigned to respond to big fires there. In the firefighting world, it’s critical to attack rangeland fires quickly to keep them contained. Especially in this rural and remote rangeland, where dry brush burns much faster than forest fires.


Fires that start in unprotected areas – no man’s lands – can grow quickly and jump jurisdictional boundaries. They could end up costing states millions of dollars if they grow to become mega-fires.


“We started peeling back the layers, and we found these unprotected lands are a problem for everybody, for fire resources, for the adjacent local fire districts, everybody,” Linville said.


That’s why she’s fighting for what she sees as an easy, practical solution: train ranchers and farmers who live in the roughly 365,000 acres of no man’s lands in Washington to fight their own fires.


There are some benefits to living in unprotected areas. For one...