Saturday, Jan 28, 2023

Fire fighting farmers of Arbon Valley

Hans Hayden is one of the firefighting farmers of Arbon Valley. He shows off the bulldozer and pickup with 250 gallons of water he keeps handy in case a fire breaks out in the large agricultural valley southwest of Pocatello.

When lightning strikes a dry field in Arbon Valley and sparks a fire no one calls the fire department. There isn’t one to call.

Instead neighbors begin calling each other to determine the location and size of the fire and spring into action with whatever farm equipment or tanker trucks they can can lay their hands on.

“You look out where the smoke is coming from and you call until you find someone who can see it,” said lifelong Arbon farmer Hans Hayden. “It just happens.”

And it even happens in the middle of the night like it did this past week when lightning strikes caused a fire to ignite at 1:15 a.m. on the backside of the range where the Charlotte Fire had destroyed 66 homes in June.

Hayden was awakened by the sound of thunder. When he spotted flames in the distance, he did what he has done for 40 years. He called his neighbors and fired up his equipment.

Within 40 minutes the fire was out and 15 people had time to chat about what had just happened. Some had pajama tops tucked into their trousers, but they had beaten back the danger.

“You really don’t talk to anyone until the fire is out,” Hayden said.

This has been the “emergency response team” Arbon residents have relied upon for decades, according to Hayden. In a valley that stretches 60 miles and encompasses thousands of acres of private cropland and Bureau of Land Management (BLM)  ground with ridges of junipers and cedars, reliance on other residents comes with the territory.

“It works pretty well here,” Hayden said.

Homes are scattered in the Arbon Valley that is home to an LDS stake and a two-room elementary school the state of Idaho has deemed “remote and necessary.” The nearest police or fire station is a long way from any emergency.

“Everyone in the valley is part of the volunteer fire department,” Hayden explained.

He said its why he was a little angry when he read about problems farmers in the McCammon area had getting past law enforcement when a fire broke out along Marsh Creek a couple of weeks ago. A haystack was lost to flames and Hayden said he guesses neighbors would have stopped that from happening.

“If everyone works together, you don’t have problems,” he said.

The Arbon Valley farmer said he realizes the resources of the BLM come in handy when a fire gets large or makes its way into the trees. Hayden said he doesn’t have the training to fight fires in forested areas, but he knows how to help stop a range fire. Hayden said he’s even worked with aerial assaults from firefighting planes from the ground without a radio.

“A few years ago I cut a fire break around a fire and just parked up on the hill so the pilots could see me,” he said. “They knew what to do.”

Hayden said what he and his neighbors don’t want to encounter is aggressive attitudes from BLM crews or law enforcement on the ground. He said the farmers in the valley know the lay of the land and how a fire will act and can be the best resource for stopping the spread of a wildfire.

“It’s kind of a love-hate relationship,” Hayden said about the BLM. “I really need their planes sometimes.”

But Hayden said it is the quick response of valley residents that can keep fires in check.

“A tractor with a disk is a thousand times faster than anything they can use,” Hayden said.

He cited a recent fire that broke out at the base of the backside of Scout Mountain southwest of Pocatello as an example.

“If we hadn’t got on it, it would have burned the whole west side of Scout Mountain,” Hayden said.

In a summer that has seen little rain, high winds and numerous “red flag” fire danger warnings, Hayden said the importance of coordinated professional and private efforts should be obvious.

“When I go to a fire, I do it at my own risk and at no charge,” he said. “If counties have liability issues maybe the law should be changed.”

Law or no law, the residents of Arbon Valley will continue to be on the look out for fires and be ready to attack if necessary.

“That’s what we do,” Hayden said.

Reprinted by permission from the Idaho State Journal. Author: Michael H. O’Donnell