Satellite phones make cowboys wildfire sentinels

Satellite phones make cowboys wildfire sentinels

31 August 2008

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USA — The craggy gullies where Idaho cowboy Paul Nettleton runs 1,200 head of cattle are often precious minutes from reliable cell phone coverage.

That could spell disaster in this region where sudden summertime storms howl in from eastern Oregon, bringing dry lightning that can ignite fast-moving wildfires on sage- and juniper-covered hillsides. Unchecked, the flames could quickly turn this old mining town’s historic wooden buildings to ashes.

This spring, Nettleton and six other Owyhee County ranchers who make their livelihoods in some of America’s most remote backcountry began carrying satellite telephones provided by the federal Bureau of Land Management and the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security.

It’s an effort to turn men whose ranching families have been wedded to this land for more than a century into a high-tech advance guard against devastating wildfires.

“Minutes count in that country,” Nettleton told The Associated Press one morning last week after parking his four-wheeler outside the town’s 145-year-old Idaho Hotel. “Right now, it’s pretty quiet. But it’ll come.”

The BLM says Owyhee County — the name comes from South Pacific explorer Captain Cook’s spelling of Hawaii and honors Hawaiian trappers who disappeared in the uncharted region in 1818 — is the first place the agency has armed cowboys with satellite phones.

Silver City’s summer residents feel a little safer, knowing Nettleton is always connected to one of Bethesda, Md.,-based Iridium Satellite LLC’s 66 satellites orbiting overhead, not just the cell phone tower on nearby War Eagle Mountain that’s often blocked by the region’s terrain.

“He’s kind of our voice on the mountain,” said Jim Hyslop, who helps run the local Silver City Fire and Rescue and has family roots here dating to 1916.

However, the ranchers have yet to use their new phones to report a fire.

After nearly eight years of uninterrupted drought, last winter’s ample snowfall and this spring’s rain has made much of Owyhee County’s high country greener than normal this year, limiting the fire danger. Typical summer storms with dry lightning and sudden gales just haven’t materialized.

A year ago, however, wildfires blazed across 3,000 square miles of Idaho — an area three times the size of Rhode Island.

It took three weeks to contain one of those wildfires, a lightning-caused complex of blazes that covered nearly 1,000 square miles, killing wildlife and livestock, blackening grazing ground and charring habitat for seasons to come for sensitive species such as sage grouse. It was the largest single fire ever fought by the BLM in Idaho.

As the embers were barely cool, BLM managers and ranchers began discussions last fall about improving communication before the next conflagration.

For an initial agency investment of $10,000, the seven Iridium satellite phones seemed a reasonable bargain, said Janet Peterson, the BLM’s safety manager in Boise — especially considering that 1,000-square-mile complex alone cost more than $13 million to fight and will likely set taxpayers back $34 million more to restore the blackened landscape.

“The ranchers are a pretty key partner,” she said. “They know the country.”

Iridium has nearly 230,000 commercial and government voice subscribers, along with a unit that supplies equipment for companies and the U.S. Department of Defense to track assets in remote areas where there’s no conventional cellular communication. Voice users include soldiers, the maritime industry, oil and gas companies, utilities, construction and mining — “Basically any industry where you’ve got workers out in the middle of nowhere,” Iridium spokeswoman Liz DeCastro said.

Should one of Idaho’s cowboys spot a fire and place a call, firefighting planes could be scrambled out of the Boise Airport about 50 miles northeast of Silver City.

The ranchers have been told to use the phones in medical emergencies, too. The state’s disaster agency, the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security, is chipping in for the service costs.

“If you see a fire and have no connectivity, you can’t tell anybody,” said Col. Bill Shawver, the agency’s director. “To have a satellite phone with you, you can make that immediate call and get firefighters mobilized.”

The phones were distributed to ranchers based on where they run their cattle and the existing grid of cell phone service. Cowboys call in once a month, to make sure the phones are working.

Ken Tindall, whose family has ranched Owyhee County since 1885, has 1,000 head of cattle on 100,000 acres on both sides of the Idaho and Nevada state line. In Nevada, he has no cell phone reception at all.

“From some of the ridge tops, I can see 80, 90 or 100 miles in any direction,” Tindall said. “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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