Senator criticizes Park Service over escaped prescribed fire

Cold Brook Fire 4-14-2015
South end of the Cold Brook Fire, Wednesday morning, April 14, 2015. NPS photo.

South Dakota Senator John Thune sent a strongly worded letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel criticizing the National Park Service for the escaped prescribed fire, (the Cold Brook Fire in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota), that burned 5,420 acres of NPS land outside of the intended burn unit. The escape was entirely within the boundaries of Wind Cave National Park.

In the letter, Senator Thune makes assumptions about the cause of the escape, citing “extremely dry conditions”, and saying it “could easily have been prevented”.

A rational person would wait until an investigation or review sheds more light on what actually caused the prescribed fire to go out of control. However, recent investigations of federal fires with a negative outcome have consciously avoided determining the cause or listing conclusions. Or if they do, it is kept secret.

Below is the complete text of Senator Thune’s letter to Secretary Jewel, and below that the response from the NPS:

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“On April 13, 2015, the National Park Service Forest Service (NPS) conducted a prescribed burn in the southern portion of Wind Cave National Park, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  The prescribed burn was intended to cover 1,100 acres; however, due to the extremely dry conditions present at the prescribed burn site the fire, named the Cold Brook Fire, quickly escalated out of control consuming more than 6,500 acres of Wind Cave National Park.

In certain circumstances prescribed burns play an important role in federal lands management.  However, when a prescribed burn is the recommended management tool, intentionally setting one for any reason in tinder dry forestland or grassland when extremely dry conditions exist is entirely unwarranted and inexcusable and once started has a high likelihood of burning out of control.  Historically, carelessly set prescribed burns have resulted in unnecessary endangerment of firefighters, and have destroyed homes, personal property, and public lands.

I strongly urge a thorough and critical review of the Department’s prescribed burn policies and collaboration with local and state authorities and adjacent landowners prior to initiating any future burn.  The current prescribed burn practice of following a “prescription” checklist before starting a fire obviously is not adequately preventing prescribed burns from being set in unsafe conditions that are resulting in out-of-control wildfires.  There is an urgent need for you to do more to ensure that prescribed burns can continue to be used as a management tool without jeopardizing lives and property.

I fully expect the Department of Interior to assume complete liability for any damages caused as a result of the Cold Brook Fire.  Even though the fire was contained to Wind Cave National Park property, I have been informed that fire lines were established on private property and that the intense smoke will likely damage the lungs of young calves in the vicinity resulting in high risk of pneumonia and death loss.

Within 30 days please provide me with a detailed plan for reimbursement to all who were damaged due to this fire, including private individuals, landowners, and local, county, and state entities who suffered economic losses or contributed resources to fighting this fire.  Included in the requested plan please provide how claims will be established and processed, and the timeline for reimbursement.

The Cold Brook Fire could easily have been prevented and I strongly urge you to take whatever actions necessary to prevent future occurrences. I fully expect the Department to accept full responsibility and liability for the damages, losses, and expenses due to this fire.”

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A day or two after receiving Senator Thune’s letter, the National Park Service issued this response:

“The National Park Service has performed thousands of prescribed burns over the past decades and successfully burned millions of acres as a way to prevent more catastrophic wildfires.  It is unfortunate that the fire at Wind Cave escaped prescribed boundaries, but no lives were lost and no structures burned. The fire was almost wholly contained within the boundaries of the park, with a small section of U.S. Forest Service property burned (20 x 20 yards). The fire did not burn onto private land.   We are dedicated to determining what happened in this particular instance and will begin the review process immediately.  We will share the outcome of that review process with the Congressional delegation, community members and other partners in order to help determine how to prevent similar occurrences in the future.”

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

22 thoughts on “Senator criticizes Park Service over escaped prescribed fire”

  1. “intense smoke will likely damage the lungs of young calves in the vicinity resulting in high risk of pneumonia and death loss.” I’ve been doing this a long time but that’s a first for me.

  2. Haha. I’m fairly certain a letter from a State Senator in South Dakota won’t even make the desk of the Secretary of the Interior…. especially because this is largely a federal matter.

  3. “A rational person”… OK, it’s very rare to hear an elected official described as such. I would guess he’s beginning the posturing to make his contributors happy, not really attempting to accomplish anything meaningful.

  4. Self assessment investigations don’t work if there is a potential for negative consequences as a result of the investigation. There’s a reason transportation accidents are investigated by an independent board. If you’re right about the coverup stuff Bill, maybe there should be a national wildfire safety board.

  5. And if this had been a wildfire from the start, the Esteemed Gentleman for South Dakota (as theose folks call each other in the sanctified Halls of Congress) would have criticized the NPS for failing to conduct prescribed burns to reduce the risks.
    A former US Senator from Montana took on the fire community in 2006 over a fire that impacted some ranchers, and at election time, he “went down in flames” (pun intended).
    I too am a cattle rancher, and am in fact burning off parts of my pasture today: my registered Angus calves love walking around in the smoke and exploring – I’m not worried about illness and/or death; it’s like this every Spring.

  6. A politician doing what politicians do, playing to a constituency. In this case the playing is notably T’uneless.

  7. Let’s hope Senator Thune has high, brown boots… because he’s stepping in the deep brown.

  8. Wow, defensive much? That sure seems to be a problem with us today. Cant take any criticism, constructive or otherwise. I dont read anything in this letter that would warrant a response like the ones above.

    I would say that the outcome was as good as can be expected, the wildfire stayed on public land, apparently not burning anything with cultural or historical significance.

    But, when my neighbor cracks off a fire that gets away, but stops at my fence line, yeah, I might get a little nervous. I might be inclined to say something. Maybe write a letter to a congressman.

    Community relations can not be a one way street. If people are upset about our RX policies and procedures, we need to talk about it. Not circle the wagons and tell people that we dont make mistakes.

    1. I don’t have much issue with the message, but I do with the tone. Here one member of a group of 535 elected officials ORDERING an agency in charge of managing a piece of Public Land to give him a personal account of what went wrong, and how they are going to repair the damage to adjacent private citizens. It seems he is ASSUMING there will be a cover up. If he wants to prevent that, first he needs to work on reversing Public Law 107-203, and allow LMAs to trust that an investigation, and not a witch hunt is the intent.

      I also think he is jumping to conclusions, and is showing little knowledge about firefighting. Obviously, to have an effective prescribed burn, you need to have appropriate dryness.

      IMO, there is a factual error in every paragraph except the second to last. That one escapes because it makes no statement of fact, it only orders action. “Tell me how much you are going to pay my supporters…”

  9. I wonder if the Senator understands that the Department of the Interior is funded by Congress and the agency’s ability to properly manage public lands has been severely curtailed by inadequate funding in recent years.

  10. Mark Twain had some barbed comments about politicians. He would have had a good laugh over this story. Just as true in his time as ours.

  11. Can anyone refresh my memory on how many escapes have happened in this part of the country by a Fed Agency in the last few years? This is not the first. Not surprised somebody’s asking questions.

  12. Oh Bill – there you go again: clouding the discussion by introducing FACTS.
    An early post suggested that we just stop all prescribed burning, let fires rip, and blame Mother Nature: what’s wrong with that, except the the Politicians wouldn’t be able to blame the Feds?
    “Don’t confuse me with facts: I’ve already made up my mind.”

  13. I agree with your comment, Firefighter Zero, and your comment to the escape near Hettinger SD on 05 FEB 14 would apply to this also, it seems.

  14. I wonder what the ratio of un-escaped prescribed fires to escaped ones are.

    I’m convinced that politicians in general need to keep their comments to things they are experts on, mainly spreading misinformation about things they know nothing about.

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