September 1, 2008

Ranchers Use Satellite Phones To Warn Of Wildfires

Ranchers in the rugged, remote backcountry in the northwestern United States began receiving new satellite telephones this spring from the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security. 

The phones are intended to allow these families to act as a high-tech advance warning system against potentially destructive wildfires.

For ranchers such as Paul Nettleton, who runs 1,200 head of cattle, the phones come as a welcome relief.  The Idaho cowboy is typically far away from reliable cell coverage, something that could spell disaster in a region where sudden summer storms move in quickly from eastern Oregon, accompanied by dry lightning that can ignite wildfires on brush-covered hillsides. Unconstrained, these fires have the potential to quickly turn this old mining town's wooden buildings to ashes.

Nettleton and six other Owyhee County ranchers began carrying the new satellite phones a few months ago. The phones were distributed to the ranchers based on where they run their cattle and the existing cell phone service grid.  The ranchers call in once a month to verify the phones are working.

"Minutes count in that country," Nettleton told The Associated Press last week.

"Right now, it's pretty quiet. But it'll come," he said.

Owyhee county's name originates from South Pacific explorer Captain Cook's spelling of Hawaii, and pays tribute to Hawaiian trappers who disappeared in the region in 1818.  

The BLM said that Owyhee County is the first place the agency began distributing the satellite phones, which are always connected to one of Iridium Satellite LLC's 66 satellites orbiting in the sky overhead. 

Silver City's residents say they feel a little safer knowing Nettleton has access to one of the phones, and are relieved to have an alternative to the cell phone tower on neighboring War Eagle Mountain that's often blocked by the area's rugged terrain.

"He's kind of our voice on the mountain," Jim Hyslop told the AP, referring to Nettleton.  Hyslop, who has family roots in the area dating back to 1916, helps run the local Silver City Fire and Rescue.

However, a heavy snowfall last winter combined with an ample amount of spring rain has made much of the county greener than normal this year, and the ranchers have not yet needed to use their new phones to report a fire.  The region's usual summer storms with dry lightning and abrupt gales just haven't materialized unlike a year ago, when wildfires burned across 3,000 square miles of the state.  

One of those fires, a lightning-caused complex of blazes covering nearly 1,000 square miles, was the largest single fire ever fought by the BLM in Idaho.  It took three weeks to contain, killing livestock and wildlife, and charring for years the grazing ground and habitat of vulnerable species such as sage grouse.

Last fall, in the fire's aftermath, BLM managers and ranchers began talking about improving communication before the next blaze.

Janet Peterson, the BLM's Boise-based safety manager, said the seven Iridium phones seemed a bargain at $10,000, the agency's initial investment.  It was an easy case to make, considering that the 1,000-square-mile blaze alone cost more than $13 million to fight and will likely cost taxpayers an additional $34 million in restoration expenses.  

"The ranchers are a pretty key partner," she told the AP.

"They know the country."

Iridium has nearly 230,000 government and commercial subscribers, and has a separate unit that supplies tracking equipment for companies and the U.S. Department of Defense that have assets in remote areas without traditional cellular communication services. 

Voice subscribers include soldiers, oil and gas companies, utilities, the maritime industry, construction and mining.

"Basically any industry where you've got workers out in the middle of nowhere," Liz DeCastro, a company spokeswoman, said.

Should one of Idaho's ranchers spot a fire and notify officials with their satellite phone, firefighting planes could be rapidly deployed out of the Boise Airport about 50 miles northeast of Silver City.

The ranchers have been instructed to use the phones in medical emergencies as well, with the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security funding some of the service costs.

"If you see a fire and have no connectivity, you can't tell anybody," Col. Bill Shawver, the agency's director, told the AP.

"To have a satellite phone with you, you can make that immediate call and get firefighters mobilized."

Ken Tindall, who runs 1,000 heads of cattle on 100,000 acres on both sides of the Nevada and Idaho state line, has no cell phone coverage in Nevada.   His family has ranched Owyhee County since 1885.

"From some of the ridge tops, I can see 80, 90 or 100 miles in any direction," Tindall told the AP.

"If I see smoke, I can get it reported very quickly. I could have used it last year a lot, that's for sure."


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