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 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.

Report released for escaped prescribed fire in Wind Cave NP

Cold Brook Fire April 13, 2015
Cold Brook Prescribed Fire April 13, 2015, shortly after it escaped, crossing Highway 385. This is looking northwest. Photo by Benjamin Carstens (click to enlarge)

The National Park Service has released a “Facilitated Learning Analysis” (FLA) for the prescribed fire that escaped in Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota April 13, 2015. The Cold Brook prescribed fire spotted almost 200 feet across U.S. Highway 385 burning an unplanned 5,420 acres beyond the 1,000 acres planned, all within the boundaries of the park. There were no injuries and no structures or private property burned. (In the interest of full disclosure, for five years the writer of this article was the Fire Management Officer for the NPS’ Northern Great Plains Fire Management Group which includes Wind Cave NP.)

Overturned ATV Cold Brook RxDuring the suppression action an all terrain vehicle with two people on board overturned. It was destroyed immediately by the approaching fire as the firefighters “jogged side-slope away from the fire until they had sufficient visibility to see their escape route safely into the black.” The line gear belonging to one of the two firefighters was consumed in the fire, since he did not have time to retrieve it from the tipped-over vehicle as the fire bore down.

The 72-hour preliminary report on the incident stated that the FLA would be “due to the NPS Midwest Regional Director by May 29, 2015”. The report that was released through the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center is dated today.

The document, which you can download here (9 Mb), is long (62 pages of small font) and quite thorough. It delves deeply, very deeply, into the on site weather and long term weather records, as expected, and explores in detail the use of ATVs on prescribed burns and wildfires. In addition to discussion of the fire-related aspects of the analysis, the four writers, from the National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Forest Service, recommended that the “Technology and Development” program develop a wildland fire standard for equipment, configuration and performance of motorized off-highway vehicles.

The report includes a link to a time-lapse video, unlisted on YouTube, which I had not previously seen. Below is, first, a screen grab from the video, which we annotated, and after that the video itself. At 0:30, it goes by very quickly, but you can see the spot fire taking off.

Cold Brook escaped prescribed fire spot fire

It may just be the time compression of the video, but it appears that the ignition within a few hundred feet of the highway, including the patches of pines, was aggressive. A gust of wind that occurred as a patch of pines were burning intensely laid the smoke down close to the ground just before the spot fire became visible. The firefighters had expected that if there were spot fires on the east side, it would be short range and in grass, easily suppressed. In the video, it appears possible that burning embers could have been lofted from the patches of timber that burned intensely, rather than grass spotting into grass. Embers from heavy fuels and standing trees can travel much farther than from grass.

There are no earth-shaking revelations in the report. As is typical with FLAs, it has a long list of “notable successes”. Here are a few:

    • No injuries.
    • The fire remained within the park boundaries.
    • No structures burned.
    • Training and experience led to a smooth transition to suppression.
    • In spite of the escape, they still completed the prescribed fire.
    • Interagency involvement, response and support for both the prescribed and wildfire side of operations was quick and supportive with no delays.
    • Knowing that a Red Flag Warning was in the forecast for the next day, they aggressively staffed the night shift in order to pick up the escape, knowing that if they failed it would be difficult to acquire adequate staffing for the next day. They stopped the spread that night, therefore large numbers of resources were not needed the next day.

A sampling of some of the issues identified in the report:

  • There was pressure from the Chief of Resources in the Park to complete the burn that day.
  • There was a perceived need to burn on the high end of the prescription in order to achieve the desired level of tree mortality.
  • There were not enough firefighting resources on the east side of the burn when the escape occurred. More emphasis was placed on the south and west sides near the park boundary, areas with heavier fuels, where they figured escapes were more likely and would have serious consequences if they spread outside the park.
  • Because of drought, fuels were abnormally dry.
  • Before the project began, the Burn Plan was amended and approved, reducing the number of personnel required from 52 to 30. On the day of the burn 38 were assigned.
  • Staffing levels in fire management at Wind Cave NP have suffered reductions, as has most of the NPS, but there has been no reduction in expectations for the accomplishment of prescribed fires in Wind Cave or the other seven parks the Fire Management Officer is responsible for.
  • The Fire Management Officer reports to eight different park superintendents, all with different expectations, similar burn windows, and priorities for burning.
  • The eight-foot high bison-proof fence on the western boundary of the park and the burn unit would have required that if firefighters were about to be entrapped by the fire or if there was a spot fire across it, they would have to scale the fence. The location of the fence, and the boundary on that side of the project, was not easy to defend.
  • Some of the personnel interviewed for the report were disappointed that there was no After Action Review after the escaped fire.
  • Everyone assigned to the incident was qualified for their positions, except for one person whose Work Capacity Test expired four days before the prescribed fire.
  • The rollover of the ATV was the second one at the Park in three years. About 13 years ago another ATV caught fire on a prescribed fire in the Park and was destroyed, but did not roll over.
  • ATV training does not include learning to operate the vehicle on the fireline.
  • The Ag Pumps used on the ATVs on the incident had been switched out for Mini-strikers which do not provide enough power to be successful during aggressive suppression activities.

We have one criticism of the report, which is otherwise quite good. The maps are difficult to read. This is partially caused by the very dark background satellite image which does not add value but instead makes the maps, at least as they are represented in the .pdf document and viewed on a computer screen, almost useless. They might be more usable if printed, but who prints a 62-page report anymore? Unfortunately, maps are an integral part of documents like this.

One segment of the report that is interesting is that after acknowledging that risk is involved in prescribed fire, the authors wrote, “If you choose not to accept the risk of prescribed fire, then you may be transferring risk” to communities, the public, private lands, natural resources, or a situation that is significantly less manageable than the current situation such as a wildfire.

About four days after the incident South Dakota’s senior Senator, John Thune, sent a very strongly-worded letter to the Secretary of the Interior using phrases like “could easily have been prevented”, “jeopardizing lives and property”, “smoke will likely damage the lungs of young calves”, and demanding that reimbursement is made quickly to “private individuals, landowners, and local, county, and state entities who suffered economic losses”. Ready, Fire, Aim.

One of the conclusions identified in the report is:

The ignition of the prescribed fire was within the prescription parameters set forth in the prescribed fire plan, it was not ignited during a fire weather watch or warning and the burn was expected to be completed prior to the next day, April 14th.

The Senator also 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 report has an entire section, Appendix Five, titled “Interagency Communication and Comment”. Here is an excerpt:

Interagency support for the prescribed fire program at Wind Cave National Park is strong, and the lead interviewer stated she heard “a tremendous amount of support” in the interviews she conducted. It is of note that the Great Plains Interagency Dispatch Center was one of the first in the nation to fully support not only Federal agencies, but the state of South Dakota as well, beginning in 2003. Since the Center serves as the central ordering point all agencies, communication is streamlined, and resource availability is better known to all the partners.

It was apparent to all Team members that NPS staff has put a great deal of effort into the Interagency working relationships over the years and are considered professional partners.

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.

Related articles on Wildfire Today:

Cold Brook prescribed fire escapes in South Dakota (updated with post-fire photos)
A UTV burned in the escaped prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park bounces back from escaped prescribed fire
Comparison photos, 6 days and 39 days after escaped prescribed fire
Senator criticizes Park Service over escaped prescribed fire
Bill introduced to require local approval or collaboration of prescribed fires
Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “escaped prescribed fire”
Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “prescribed fire”

Wind Cave antelope

pronghorn antelope

In a quick trip to Wind Cave National Park this evening I ran across pronghorn antelope, elk, and of course bison. Here’s one of them.

This guy is standing in the location of the April 13, 2015 prescribed fire. The critters in the park are enjoying the lush green grass that has come back.

Photo by Bill Gabbert.

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:


“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.

A UTV burned in the escaped prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park

A 72-hour report on the Cold Brook escaped prescribed fire disclosed that a Utility-Terrain-Vehicle tipped over and was immediately overrun by the wildfire. The report is dated April 23, 2015, ten days after the April 13 escape. We are not aware of a 24-hour report that is often released within a day or two after an incident.

Below is the Narrative from the report:

On Monday, April 13, 2015 the Cold Brook Prescribed Fire at Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota, escaped prescription and was declared a wildfire. During the wildfire suppression actions, a Utility-Terrain-Vehicle (UTV) with an operator and passenger, tipped over. The two individuals were not injured and escaped safely, but the UTV was immediately overrun by the wildfire and declared a total loss. The loss of the equipment classifies this incident as a “Wildland Fire Accident”.

We were not able to find any reference to a burned UTV in the press releases or the posts on InciWeb about the Cold Brook escaped fire.

This is not the first time an ATV or UTV has burned in a Wind Cave prescribed fire. During the Highland Creek prescribed fire, October 19, 2002, an ATV was destroyed.

Highland Creek ATV burnover
An ATV burned during the Highland Creek prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park, October 19, 2002. NPS photo.

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:


“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.”


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.”