South Dakota governor vows to fight fire in federal wilderness area

According to quotes in an article in the Rapid City Journal, Mike Rounds, the governor of South Dakota, appears to be bellicose and aggressive about fighting fire in the federal Black Elk Wilderness area in the Black Hills National Forest.

The 1964 Wilderness Act includes these provisions:

…there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.

and

….measures may be taken as may be necessary in the control of fire, insects, and diseases, subject to such conditions as the Secretary deems desirable.

Fire suppression routinely occurs in wilderness areas on national forests, but the use of motorized equipment in a wilderness area usually requires incident-specific approval from the Forest Supervisor, the highest-ranking federal employee at the national forest.

In the article, Governor Rounds implies that he would order state fire resources to take action on federal lands on which the fire suppression responsibility lies with the U. S. Forest Service (USFS). He appears to assume that the USFS would not suppress fires within the wilderness area, but as far as we know, that is not the case.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Gov. Mike Rounds says wilderness designation won’t stop him from sending in state firefighting crews if a blaze breaks out in the Black Elk Wilderness, where a mountain pine beetle outbreak has increased the risk for a major wildfire.

“In an emergency, they’re going to have to stop me from going in,” Rounds said in a recent interview.

But federal forest managers say they, too, plan to fight fire within the Black Elk Wilderness. In fact, crews have fought fires in the Black Elk in previous years, according to Black Hills National Forest supervisor Craig Bobzien. The amount and type of equipment they would use depends on the fire threat level, Bobzien said.

Rounds has cited the Black Elk Wilderness, where pine beetles have killed up to 80 percent of the trees, as one reason for his opposition to a wilderness proposal for parts of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland east of Rapid City and his support for the National Park Service’s cancellation of fireworks for the Independence Day celebration at Mount Rushmore. The Black Elk lies next to Mount Rushmore National Memorial and now poses a threat of wildfire for the central Black Hills, including Rushmore to the northeast and Custer State Park to the south, Rounds said.

Even without fireworks, one lightning strike after a dry period could set off a conflagration, Rounds said. “It’s a matter not of if, but when you have a major fire there.”

Rounds said state firefighting crews would be aggressive if fire breaks out in the Black Elk.

“If it means going onto some wilderness areas in order to stop it, then so be it,” he said. “We’re going to stop it before it gets out and does damage to public property that belongs to the state of South Dakota and before it damages private property and before it gets out and has an opportunity to impact human life.”

But Rounds said he and other state officials are talking with Black Hills National Forest managers to prepare for the coming fire season, including the possibility of a fire in the Black Elk Wilderness or the surrounding Norbeck Wildlife Preserve.

Rounds and Joe Lowe, coordinator of the state Wildland Fire Suppression Division, say cooperation between the state and local Forest Service officials is good.

Bobzien agrees and says that the Forest Service can — and will — fight fire in the Norbeck and even in the Black Elk Wilderness. He said, in fact, that the Forest Service has fought fires in the Black Elk in previous years.

Bobzien said the 1964 Wilderness Act allows firefighting in wilderness areas, with varying restrictions for varying levels of emergency.

The greater the risk of catastrophic fire, the more that mechanized equipment can be used within the wilderness, he said. For example, if a lightning strike starts a fire in moist conditions, Bobzien can authorize hand crews with crosscut saws.

“We have done some of that already,” he said. “That’s routine throughout past fire seasons.”

But if fire breaks out in hot, dry conditions, mechanized equipment up to and including helicopters can be used to fight fire in the Black Elk, Bobzien said.

Gov. Bill Janklow and South Dakota Wildland Fire Coordinator Joe Lowe look over a map during the Battle Creek Fire of 2002. Photo: Rapid City Journal
Gov. Bill Janklow and South Dakota Wildland Fire Coordinator Joe Lowe look over a map during the Battle Creek Fire of 2002. Photo: Rapid City Journal

Governor Rounds’ attitude reminds me of his predecessor, Governor Bill Janklow, who threatened during the 83,508-acre Jasper fire in 2000, to order state fire crews to set backfires out ahead of the fire without any coordination with the Type 1 Incident Management Team that was running the fire. This, of course, would have put firefighters and probably private property at great risk. Bill Waterbury, the Incident Commander, ordered federal marshals to stand by at the incident command post who were prepared to arrest state employees (or even the governor?) if the backfires had been lit.

Janklow also ordered that National Guard dozers be used to build dozer lines way out ahead of the fire, independent of the organized fire suppression effort, creating significant safety and resource damage concerns.

When questioned about the safety of the dozer operation he ordered that did not have adequate supervision, Janklow said if a dozer gets burned over because the operator knows nothing about wildfire, he will just buy another one. When asked, “What about the operator” that gets burned over, he said, “Anyone can outrun a fire”.

In an excellent article by Denise Ross and Bill Harlan in the October 29, 2002 issue of the Rapid City Journal, the situation was described, in part, this way:

When Waterbury arrived as Type I commander, he and Janklow had a frank discussion about who was in charge of the fire.

Waterbury said he told the governor there would be only one incident commander on the fire. “I did make the comment that if it came down to a point of putting firefighters at risk or independent actions, whether that be private citizens or the National Guard, I wouldn’t hesitate to pull all of our firefighters off the line,” Waterbury said in a recent interview. “If necessary, we’d use our federal authority to arrest people who were interfering with our firefighting.”

Janklow recalled the conversation this way: “I told him, ‘You’re not going to arrest me or anybody else. Unless I have your word that this fire won’t go on private property, I’ll fight this fire wherever it’s at.’ And I did.”

But federal firefighters said the fire line Janklow cut damaged forest roads without helping to stop the fire.

I was the Incident Commander during the early stages of the Flagpole fire in 2000 when I received a midnight phone call from Governor Jankow informing me that he was sending fire engines and 17 dozers from all across the state to the fire. I told him that we had plenty of resources and didn’t need them, but those words fell on deaf ears.

Over the next few hours those resources started showing up, with no resource tracking or order numbers, and with no idea where to go or what to do. They just headed to the smoke with no assignment, accountability, briefing, or integration into the organization, creating huge safety issues.

When we turned the fire over to an incoming incident management team, Governor Jankow attended the inbriefing and sat in the front row. I kept waiting for him to speak up and try to dictate the strategy and tactics, but surprisingly and uncharacteristically, he remained silent while I facilitated the briefing.

After leaving the Governor’s office, Bill Janklow became the state’s Representative to the U.S. Congress. But after driving his white Cadillac through a stop sign at 63 to 70 mph and hitting and killing Randy Scott who was on a motorcycle going through the intersection, he was convicted of manslaughter and in 2004 was sentenced to 100 days in jail. In his State of the State speeches, Janklow had boasted about his lead-footed driving habits. After the felony conviction and two days before the sentencing, he resigned from Congress.

I hope Governor Rounds is not using Governor Janklow as his role model. And I suggest that all governors leave the firefighting to the professionals. Any fires in the Black Elk Wilderness will be suppressed, regardless of any ill-informed and ill-advised politicians’ blustering, which tend to strain interagency relationships.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

2 thoughts on “South Dakota governor vows to fight fire in federal wilderness area”

  1. I would seriously suggest that the good folks in South Dakota have someone check the drinking water in the State Capitol building – – it apppears to be making the highest officials slightly wacko! Maybe they have been going to too many “Tea Partys”??
    If Gov. Rounds tries to follow thru on his really STUPID comments, I hope that the stove-piped LE folks from the USFS throw him and the rest of his like-minded cronies in the Federal slammer. And for the State Forestry and Fire folks, this is a moment of truth: do you obey the law, or follow the political whims of an elected official while you too knowingly break Federal laws?? Only time, fire seasons and an ignition in Black Elk will show us what really happens.

  2. Bill :
    I normally don’t comment but this really sounds like the past and former governor’s demenor.
    Looks like Joe Low would be really conflicted if his IMT2 were assigned to a federal fire in SD
    Who do you listen to your boss (governor) or your boss( agency line officer).
    Looks like another challenge to the Supremacy Claus moving east to SD. Thanks for bringing this to light.

Comments are closed.