Repercussions of a government prescribed fire that escapes and burns private property

In 2010 a prescribed fire on the Helena National Forest escaped and burned approximately 450 acres of private property.

Davis Fire, Aug. 26, 2010
Davis 5 Fire, Aug. 26, 2010. Photo: markholyoak

On August 26 and 27, 2010 the Davis 5 prescribed fire on the Helena National Forest in Montana escaped control 28 miles northwest of Helena. It happened on a windy day during Fire Weather Watch conditions when the temperature in Helena set a record for the highest ever recorded on that date .

(Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “Davis 5 prescribed fire”)

The project that was expected to treat 100 acres eventually burned about 1,600 acres of U.S. Forest Service land and approximately 450 acres of private property.

Today the Helena Independent Record and the Missoulian published an article written by Tim Kuglin that retells the story of the Davis 5 Fire. Mr. Kuglin concentrated on the effects on the private landowners and their battles, largely unsuccessful, to obtain reparations from the federal government.

The post-fire report commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service, as is the custom with federal land management reports about fires that have bad outcomes, did not outline many significant issues or bad decisions that led to the escape.

Davis fire
Firemen line the Stemple Pass Road August 26, 2010, on the Davis Fire. Dylan Brown photo.

Most of Kent Taylor’s 146 acres burned in the fire. After being rebuffed by the USFS he went to court to seek payment for damages. Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell decided on March 22, 2015 that the U.S. is immune from the suit, writing in his decision:

The Court concludes that Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that the Forest Service was negligent either in conducting the Davis 5 Unit prescribed burn or in fighting the escaped fire once it occurred or that the Forest Service violated any mandatory policy or prescription. In addition, and more significantly, strict liability does not apply and the discretionary function exception applies to bar Plaintiff’s tort claims.

The court decision, the official USFS report, and the recent newspaper article did not seriously consider two issues that we mentioned in 2010:

1. The first was the failure to take notice of the spot weather forecast that was issued at 10:43 a.m. Wednesday on the day of the burn, just before the firefighters ignited the test burn. That forecast predicted stronger winds than in the forecast that was issued the previous day which was for “winds upslope 3 to 6 mph, ridge top winds southwest 5 to 10 mph with gusts to 15 mph”. Here is what Wednesday morning’s forecast predicted for the day of ignition (the all-caps are from the weather forecast):

WIND (20 FT)……..SOUTHWEST WINDS 10 TO 15 MPH WITH AFTERNOON GUSTS 20 TO 25 MPH.
RIDGE TOP WIND……WEST AT 15 TO 20 MPH.

The report says:

The prescribed fire personnel stated they did not note any differences between the two forecasts.

That forecast also stated that on the following day, Thursday, the winds in the afternoon would be 30 to 35 mph.  The maximum wind speed allowed in the prescription for the project was 15 mph, which, from my experience, is quite high for a prescribed fire.

2. The second issue is the fact that they knew on Tuesday, the day before the burn began on Wednesday, that near record heat and a Fire Weather Watch with gusty southwest winds was forecast for Thursday. This Watch was upgraded to a Red Flag Warning on Wednesday afternoon after ignition had begun. Even in a best case scenario, if there had been no spot fires or other control problems on Wednesday, the 30 to 35 mph winds predicted for the day after ignition should have alerted experienced fire management personnel that the winds across the 100-acre prescribed fire could have caused embers to be blown across the lines, resulting in the fire escaping. Control would have been difficult in 30 to 35 mph winds.

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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4 thoughts on “Repercussions of a government prescribed fire that escapes and burns private property”

  1. Bill. Once again a failure of the current federalwildland fire management policies. The states of Nevada and Colorado and Montana have been successfully sued by the public for escaped wildland firing or escaped Rx burns resulting in key fire management leadership changes or firings in both CO and NV state forestry organizations recently. But not with the feds—disturbing trend

  2. I like these stories where a judge is the expert in wildfire ignition and control. If you own a “gun” (forest land) and pull the trigger (ignition) on a windy, record heat day, in a dry forest, what can a prescribed fire manager expect? The Davis 5 sounds more like a Park Service operation.

  3. I agree that they should’ve noted the increased winds in the spot weather the morning of the burn, and that they shouldn’t have burned based on the winds forecasted for the next day. I just want to make one note: in my experience, a 15 mph max windspeed is common in burn plans assuming that it is 20 foot winds. These winds are cut roughly in half when they get down to eye level unless you are in pure grasslands. Thanks, appreciate the magazine.

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