Ten Curry County citizens spoke out against an idea to use wild horses as a fire-prevention tactic at a county commissioner meeting Wednesday, saying relocating the plains animals into the Kalmiopsis Wilderness would be a foolhardy mission.

The proposal was presented by Commissioner Court Boice, the lone commissioner trying to garner enthusiasm for fire abatement in the backcountry to prevent another Chetco Bar Fire. That conflagration destroyed more than 191,000 acres in Curry County this summer.

Late last month, Boice outlined an idea he obtained from William Simpson, who maintains a wild horse herd on his ranch in Jackson County.

Simpson says wild horses are ideal for keeping brush, grass and other foliage from becoming overgrown and contributing to massive mega-fires like those seen in the West this year. Their use in what Simpson calls “wild horse fire brigades,” could save the Bureau of Land Management millions of dollars every year in herd maintenance and preventing and fighting wildfires.

A massive decline in elk and deer numbers in the West, along with some of the effects of climate change, are being blamed by some for the rampant fires in recent years, Simpson wrote in a Healthy Forests Healthy Communities newsletter.

No horses here

The “Wild Horse Fire Brigade” is among the ideas Boice is trying to initiate to reduce the odds of another cataclysmic fire in the county.

The Chetco Bar Fire started in the scars of the Biscuit and Silver fire scars of 2002 and 1987, respectively — and now the fire scar is that much closer to populated areas. The Chetco Bar Fire came within five miles of Brookings and had fire officials contemplating how to evacuate the entire city.

Wide swaths of land are sometimes cleared to make fire breaks to prevent fires from spreading through vulnerable areas, and defensible space is created around buildings to protect them. Boice notes those two tactics are becoming less useful in an era of mega-fires.

“Defensible space didn’t work in Santa Rosa,” he said of the wildfire there in mid-October. “It didn’t work in Eagle Creek (in the Columbia Gorge) where it jumped 1 mile (over the Columbia River). And California is on fire — again. You just gotta look east to see how susceptible we are. We talked about this in June, and the fires started in July.”

He reminded everyone the next fire season is just five months away.

Few who have lived with wild horses on or near their property had little good to say about the experience.

Charles Holcomb noted they are not a native species but originated in Spain, via Mexico — a point Boice refutes — are not suited to the unique ecosystem of this area, carry diseases and could spread Sudden Oak Death and Port Orford cedar root fungus.

“This is well-intentioned, but ill-informed and would have disastrous consequences in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness,” Holcomb said. “It is irresponsible to release horses (there).”

Cliff Stansell of Pistol River said horses go where the food is, and wild horses will eat alder and other trees, then move on to residential neighborhood gardens before eating brush in the backcountry.

Tim Palmer of Port Orford said the idea was not only bad, but illegal.

The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 bans putting horses in areas in which they haven’t historically roamed. Horses trample new trees, their flat hooves compact the soil, they reproduce at a prolific rate and wouldn’t fare well in the steep, craggy backcountry here, he and others said.

“The government spends a lot of money in vain to corral these horses, and to invite the problem, to bring it here is a colossally bad idea,” Palmer said, on behalf of the Kalmiopsis Audubon Society. “No credible study shows how horses could benefit a situation such as ours. The pursuit of this would be a waste of time.”

Marna Williams of Gold Beach noted few citizens would want to invest the time, manpower and money in evacuating the animals in a wildfire — and others would upset to learn they became trapped in canyons and burned.

“The public isn’t outraged about the number of animals we just lost in this 191,000-acre fire?” Boice said. “The mega-fires are coming. If horses can eat the fuel and reduce the fire potential … Unless we get 2,000 people with weedeaters out there three times a year, it’s not going to work. We have to address out-of-control fuel (growth).”

With information he obtained from Simpson, Boice countered many of the arguments regarding the wild horses’ native status in the West, the damage they inflict on the land and other points often argued in discussions about the wild horses and burros in the BLM system.

“I’m not sure all those who testified did as much research as I did,” he said. “I hope you will.”

Bills considered

Others urged commissioners to consider proven methods such as fuels reduction and defensible space around buildings.

U.S. House Resolution 2936, the Resilient Federal Forest Act, has passed the House, but is said to be losing momentum. Opponents say it doesn’t go far enough to include local input or protect critical areas.

Senate Bill 1842, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, has more support. The bill would discontinue “fire borrowing,” which involves the increasingly common practice of using fire prevention money to suppress fires that prevention work was supposed to alleviate.

Fires throughout the West — not including the six burning in Southern California this week that have burned more than 100,000 acres — have cost the U.S. Forest Service more than $2 billion. The figure doesn’t include the costs incurred from other agencies, nor support provided by the U.S. National Guard and others.

Fire suppression accounted for 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget in 1995, according to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sonny Perdue. Today, it takes up more than 55 percent.

How the fires will be paid for nationwide has yet to be determined, particularly since Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico are vying for federal emergency funds for damage incurred after hurricanes ripped through the South this summer.

“We are responsible to do everything we can,” Boice told the crowd. “I’m going to be calling on all of you to come up with solutions.”

Reach Jane Stebbins at jstebbins@currypilot.com .

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