Bill introduced to require local approval or collaboration of prescribed fires

Cold Brook Fire April 13, 2015
Cold Brook Fire April 13, 2015, looking northwest shortly after the prescribed fire crossed Highway 385. Photo by Benjamin Carstens (click to enlarge)

The same U.S. Senator who earlier made some guesses about what caused the Cold Brook prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park to escape control in South Dakota, burning an additional 5,420 acres, has introduced a bill that would require “collaboration with state government and local fire officials before a prescribed burn could be started on federal land when fire danger is at certain levels in the area of the prescribed burn”.

The text of Senate Bill 1100 introduced by Senator John Thune is not yet available; the passage above was included in a newsletter distributed by his office on April 29.

Our position is that it is very appropriate for the legislative Branch to provide oversight of actions taken by the Executive Branch of government. However, that oversight should NOT be a knee-jerk reaction based on the quick assumptions and guesses of a Senator about what caused a particular outcome. Wait until the facts are in, THEN provide reasoned advice based on science.

An example of a Senator’s ready-fire-aim approach to fix a perceived problem is Senator Maria Cantwell’s and Representative Doc Hastings’ hastily conceived Public Law 107-203 in 2002 following the Thirtymile Fire that killed four firefighters. That bill resulted in the firefighters’ crew boss being charged with 11 felonies, including four counts of manslaughter. The law destroyed the process of obtaining information about the cause and prevention of serious accidents on the fireline. We hope that Senator Thune is not following in Senator Cantwell’s ill-conceived footsteps.

Politicians should take a breath, and resist the overwhelming temptation to criticize the administration of the other party before the facts are known.

Below is a press release from the office of Senator Thune:

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“Thune Introduces Bill to Prevent Reckless Prescribed Burns on Federal Lands

U.S. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) last night introduced a bill that would require collaboration between federal and local officials before initiating a prescribed burn on federal lands when fire danger is high. Thune’s bill follows two prescribed burns in South Dakota in the past two years that have burned out-of-control, one set by the Forest Service (FS) in northwestern South Dakota known as the Pautre Fire and most recently one set by the National Park Service (NPS) on April 13, 2015, known as the Cold Brook Fire at Wind Cave National Park.

“Over the past two years, the federal government has twice exercised a complete disregard for imminent fire danger by starting prescribed burns under unsafe conditions in South Dakota,” said Thune. “The Pautre Fire caused extensive property losses and both fires required multiple firefighting units, equipment, and personnel to fight the out-of-control fires. It is reasonable to require federal agencies to collaborate with state governments and local fire officials before setting prescribed burns under these conditions, and that is exactly what my bill would do.”

Both prescribed burns in South Dakota were started under extremely dry conditions. Thune’s bill looks to address numerous issues that came about as a result of these fires. Under Thune’s bill, the Cold Brook Fire would not have been set due to the restrictions on prescribed burns during dry conditions unless state and local officials had consented. Additionally, if this bill had been enacted at the time of the Pautre Fire, individuals impacted by out-of-control burns would be reimbursed for their damages in a timely manner. Pautre fire victims still have not been reimbursed by the FS, nor has the FS accepted fault.

Thune’s bill, the Prescribed Burn Approval Act of 2015, would require the head of a federal agency to first collaborate and obtain approval from state government and local fire officials if the Grassland Fire Danger Index indicates a high, very high, or extreme fire danger or the FS has declared very high or extreme fire danger. Thune’s bill also stipulates that should a federal agency proceed with a prescribed burn that damages private property, it is liable for any damage to private property caused by the burn, with damages to be paid within 120 days of receipt of a substantiated claim.

Author: Bill Gabbert

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

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