Senator wants to require more steps before beginning a prescribed fire

Senator John Thune has been critical of federal firefighters previously.

A U.S. Senator has proposed an amendment to introduced legislation that would require additional procedures before federal agencies could conduct a prescribed fire. Senator John Thune from South Dakota wants to require consultation with local and state fire officials before the project begins. One of his reasons is that he contends local and state officials know more than the federal professional prescribed fire managers.

“Local officials are going to know a little bit more about what the conditions are in the area”, Senator Thune said in a newsletter distributed by his office on September 15.

This requirement has been offered as an amendment to a Republican backed bill introduced by Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas June 22, 2016, titled S.3085 – Emergency Wildfire and Forest Management Act of 2016. Senator Thune contends that the amendment was adopted by unanimous consent during a Senate Agriculture Committee markup, but no official action after the introduction is showing up at bill-tracking websites. After three months the bill has no cosponsors, and GovTrack.us predicts a 2 percent chance of it being enacted.

The primary purpose of the bill is to eliminate some environment restrictions for planned “forest management activities”. The list of these activities is long and vague enough to cover a very wide range of land treatments, including timber harvesting.

Senator Thune advocated his consultation procedure before when he introduced a stand-alone bill in 2015. It had one cosponsor and never advanced beyond being introduced. Apparently the powerful Senator did not work hard to promote his idea, or perhaps he only wanted some publicity. 

Senator Thune has generated publicity before in matters regarding prescribed fire. In 2015 he distributed to the media a strongly-worded very critical letter he sent to the Secretary of the Interior after the Cold Brook prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota escaped, burning an additional 5,420 acres of prairie. It never spread beyond the park boundaries.

Four days after the escape and months before the official report came out, the Senator was apparently very satisfied that he knew exactly the cause, writing to the Secretary, “The Cold Brook Fire could easily have been prevented”, and “the intense smoke will likely damage the lungs of young calves in the vicinity resulting in high risk of pneumonia and death loss.”

Ready. Fire. Aim.

Cold Brook Fire
Highway 385, which can be seen in the distance, was supposed to be the boundary of the Cold Brook prescribed fire. Only the land on the far side of the highway was intended to burn. Photo taken a few days after the fire by Bill Gabbert.
Wind Cave prescribed fire
Photo taken of the area where the Cold Brook prescribed fire crossed US Highway 385, taken 39 days after the fire. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The escaped fire was in grass and ground fuels beneath scattered trees that had been treated with prescribed fire before, and there was no significant crowning. It was basically over after one afternoon, but that didn’t stop Senator Thune from prognosticating about the lung condition of calves outside the park.

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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9 thoughts on “Senator wants to require more steps before beginning a prescribed fire”

  1. While I think coordination is generally a good thing, IMNSHO legislatively directly micromanagement of tactics and procedures tends to have poor unintended consequences, particularly in the long run (and not just for fire management).

  2. The link below is a story about the Padre Fire that came to mind when I saw your article about Senator Thune’s legislation. Before the fire was ignited, local ranchers pleaded with the authorities to postpone the burn because the weather conditions were too extreme to contain the fire. They were summarily ignored. The result was a wildfire that threatened the homes, lives, livestock and livelihoods.

    http://legacy.wday.com/event/article/id/78068/

    Senator Thune’s concerns are based on a number of “prescribed” burns that have escaped control. I would imagine he used the Wind Cave fire as an example because it is more recent and perhaps at a better known location.

    If you Google “escaped prescribed burn” you will find “prescribed” burns escape with alarming regularity! In fact, federal agencies use the term “prescribed” for these burns because they so often fail to “control” them.

    1. On average the federal land management agencies (Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, US Forest Service), conduct between 4000 and 5000 prescribed burns a year and 99% of these are conducted successfully.

    2. Mr. Martin (below) is correct. Rates of escaped prescribed fires are incredibly low. Less than .5% of prescribed fires escape, in an average year. In many years, it’s less than .05%.

      Due to the number of organizations that conduct prescribed fires, it’s very difficult to find solid numbers on prescribed fires nation-wide, but the analysis that has been done routinely shows an escape rate of less than 1%.

      Using google searches to make your assertion-“they fail so often”- is problematic.

      If you google news on “grizzly attack,” you’d presume they happen with such frequency that you run a risk of dying in one.

      If you google news on “death by bee sting” you’d presume you have no chance to die by a bee sting.

      Statistically, it’s the bee that will get you. But the grizzly makes the better story.

  3. It is foolish not to coordinate with local fire agencies but we don’t need legislation to fix this problem just common sense

  4. If we don’t RX burn people will complain, If we do they will complain. No win.
    But with the country’s disastrous forestry management practices over the last hundred years plus something needs to be done. And prescribed fire is a good tool. I worked with some very good fire managers and every once in a great while despite the best plans and most careful operations one would slip away from us. Life is not risk free.

  5. Here in the Southeast, I work for a federal agency conducting prescribed fires. We pull a state permit for every Rx fire we conduct. We also drive and look at the conditions of the unit the day before, but have probably looked at the unit numerous times in the months and weeks prior. I don’t know where this senator is getting the idea that federal firefighters are so incompetent that they don’t notice what the weather is like in the area they live. Even when we bring detailers in from outside the Southeast, they are always tied with a local firefighter to keep them apprised of what those conditions mean in these fuels. But if I were as incompetent as a senator, I’d assume everyone else was just as incompetent.

    Not to mention that the state regulatory agencies for prescribed fire in the states we work in, have different management objectives. For example, one state land manager that I have dealt with has told me that longleaf pines are not fire dependent and if you burn them in the growing season they will die. Under this proposal that land manager may be able to prevent a federal agency from utilizing Rx fires in a way to restore critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act. But of course, if we have learned anything over the last few years, politicians can pick and chose which Federal laws apply to them.

    Senator Thune should really look at the millions of acres burned every year in the Southeast by Rx fire. Even better, maybe he should spend some time on a megafire that could have been prevented by an Rx fire or two.

  6. Shhh, don’t tell the Senator, but in my local district our grazing permittees are getting higher than average returns on their stock in the fall after grazing on increased forage…

    Not to mention the hunting outfitters that want to know where we are burning so that they know where to look for elk…

    Based on the Senator and other anti-prescribed fire comments in/after this article, I think it is safe to assume some folks are just trying to reduce competition and line their own pockets…

    Get a clue people, we aren’t ever going to log every tree and graze every piece of grass. Fires are going to happen. They can be prescribed or unprescribed. Quit choosing ignorance.

  7. We already work with the locals on our burns and we have local personnel on over half our burns. It seems to work pretty well except for when there is a local official on a power trip.

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