Senator advocates additional consultation prior to prescribed fires

Cold Brook Fire April 13, 2015

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

Senator John Thune of South Dakota had a video edited that stars him as he makes statements and asks questions during a committee hearing about forestry issues. The hearing occurred July 16 before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. The panelist in the video is Robert Bonnie, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Under Secretary for  Natural Resources and Environment.

Mr. Thune was pushing Senate Bill 1100 that he is sponsoring (without any co-sponsors) titled Prescribed Burn Approval Act of 2015. You can see the entire hearing HERE (it starts at 17:00). Mr. Thune’s edited version is below.

In the video, he said, referring to two recent escaped prescribed fires on federal land in South Dakota, [The agencies]….”had no business in a couple of these circumstances starting fires given the weather conditions that were existing at the time, and people at the local level would know that. So all we’re asking for is consultation at the front end before this happens and work with folks and get their sign-off and then on the back end when something like this happens a response that is timely, expedited and effective.”

The Senator got fired up after two recent large escaped prescribed fires in South Dakota. In 2013 the Pasture 3B prescribed fire escaped in the Dakota Prairie National Grasslands in northern South Dakota. It was planned at 210 acres, but strong winds on April 3, 2013 caused by the predicted passage of a cold front pushed the fire across a mowed fire line into tall grass and ultimately burned 10,679 acres, (3,519 acres federal and 7,160 acres private). The wildfire, named Pautre Fire, was stopped at 11 p.m. that night.

More recently, on April 13, 2015 the Cold Brook prescribed fire, which was planned as a 1,000-acre project in Wind Cave National Park in southwest South Dakota, spotted across U.S. Highway 385 and burned 5,420 acres of park land outside of the intended burn unit. The escape was entirely within the boundaries of Wind Cave National Park. A few days later Mr. Thune sent a strongly worded letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel criticizing the National Park Service for the escaped prescribed fire.

The legislation the Senator is pushing is not lengthy, but has some interesting requirements, such as, a prescribed fire can’t be executed on federal land if the grassland fire danger index indicates a high, very high, or extreme danger of grassland fire, or if the Chief of the Forest Service has declared very high or extreme fire danger. However, the project could still be carried out “if the head of the Federal agency obtains prior approval from the applicable State government and local fire officials”.

And there’s this: “A head of a Federal agency that authorizes a prescribed burn shall be liable for any damage to private property caused by the prescribed burn, notwithstanding chapter 171 of title 28, United States Code (commonly known as the “Federal Tort Claims Act”) or any State law.” The proposed bill also says damages must be paid within 120 days of receipt of a substantiated claim.

These provisions raise a few questions. The grassland fire danger index is exclusively designed to predict the potential for non-agricultural grasslands to carry fire. This could be a useful indicator for prescribed fires in grasses, but not necessarily for projects in other fuel types and elevations.

And I am not aware of the Chief of the Forest Service making a proclamation establishing a daily fire danger rating.

I am no attorney, but it appears that the legislation, if it becomes law, would make the head of agencies personally liable for damages resulting from escaped prescribed fires. If so, and if they would not be automatically reimbursed, it could be difficult to entice anyone to accept those positions.

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$50 million in claims over escaped prescribed fire reportedly denied

Pautre Fire origin

USFS photo from the report on the escaped prescribed fire, the Pautre Fire, in North Dakota and South Dakota.

The Associated Press is reporting that the Department of Agriculture, in a letter signed by Department Secretary Tom Vilsack, is denying $50 million in claims filed by sixteen ranchers and landowners over a prescribed fire that escaped and burned 10,679 acres in North Dakota and South Dakota.

The “Pasture 3B” prescribed fire was planned to be 210 acres on the Dakota Prairie National Grasslands, but strong winds on April 3, 2013 caused by the predicted passage of a cold front pushed the fire across a mowed fire line into tall grass and ultimately burned 10,679 acres, (3,519 acres federal and 7,160 acres private). The wildfire, named Pautre Fire, was stopped at 11 p.m. that night.

In explaining the denial, Secretary Vilsack said the Forest Service relied on forecasts from the National Weather Service in Rapid City, South Dakota, that ultimately proved inaccurate.

In February, 2014 the US Forest Service released a report about the fire, called a “Facilitated Learning Analysis. The issues listed by the document included:

  • Improved weather forecasts are needed.
  • Consider additional research on methods to predict effects of drought on fire behavior in grass fuel models.
  • The nearest remote automated weather station (RAWS) is more than 90 miles away.
  • The project was conducted at the critical edge of the prescription.
  • Consider gaming out worst case scenario “what ifs” during the planning process, and discuss with participants during the on-site briefing.
  • There were problems with radio communications [note from Bill: I don’t remember EVER seeing a report like this that did not cite radio communications as being an issue].
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Comparison photos, 6 days and 39 days after escaped prescribed fire

Cold Brook Fire

Highway 385, which can be seen in the distance, was supposed to be the boundary of the prescribed fire. Only the land on the far side of the highway was planned to burn.

Wind Cave prescribed fire

These photos were taken by Bill Gabbert in the area burned when the April 13 Cold Brook prescribed fire escaped in Wind Cave National Park. In each pair of pictures, the first was taken on April 19, 6 days after the fire, and the next was taken on May 22, 39 days after the fire.

Cold Brook Fire

Looking east from the planned burn area to Highway 385 which did not serve as an adequate fire line under the conditions that day.

Wind Cave prescribed fire

Cold Brook Fire

Wind Cave prescribed fire

Cold Brook Fire

The north end of the fire, east of Highway 385.

Wind Cave prescribed fire

Related articles on Wildfire Today:

Cold Brook prescribed fire escapes in South Dakota
Wind Cave National Park bounces back from escaped prescribed fire

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Wind Cave National Park bounces back from escaped prescribed fire

With copious rain over the last five weeks since the Cold Brook prescribed fire escaped control in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota on April 13, the additional 5,000 acres outside the planned burn unit is in serious green-up. Most of the “bonus acres” had been treated at least once with previous prescribed fires, so there was not a heavy build up of fuel within the timbered areas. The escape, even though it was pushed by a strong wind, did not have high mortality in the Ponderosa pines. Most of the areas we saw near U.S. Highway 385 look like a typical prescribed fire in the park, however there were a few patches of pine that were taken out.

All of the photos below were taken by Bill Gabbert on May 22, 2015, 39 days after the fire. Click on the photos to see larger versions.

Wind Cave National Park prescribed fire

The bison are enjoying the nutrient-rich fresh green grass in the burned area. The one in the foreground is wallowing in dirt.

Wind Cave National Park prescribed fire

The lower branches on these Ponderosa pines had been burned off in a prescribed fire about 15 years ago, so they were virtually unscathed this time.

Wind Cave National Park prescribed fire

Wind Cave National Park prescribed fire Wind Cave National Park prescribed fire

Wind Cave National Park prescribed fire

One objective of most of the prescribed fires in the Park is to remove some of the pine reproduction that is encroaching into the prairie. The brown seedlings here indicate some success in that regard.

Wind Cave National Park prescribed fire

Related articles:

Cold Brook prescribed fire escapes in South Dakota
Comparison photos, 6 days and 39 days after escaped prescribed fire

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Minnesota DNR slash pile escapes after nearly 5 months, starts large fire

A slash pile ignited by employees of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in November continued to burn over the winter and started what became last week’s 4,500-acre Palsburg Fire nearly five months later.

The slash piles were left after a logging operation on state forest lands.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Duluth News Tribune:

[Forestry Division Director Forrest] Boe said DNR Forestry personnel ignited the slash pile that started last week’s blaze Nov. 25. Foresters checked the pile again in December and found embers but determined they didn’t pose a problem because it was winter. A subsequent check March 16 determined the fire was cold.

Then came the hot, dry, windy conditions of April 15, which fanned up a spark that had lingered nearly five months. A DNR detection plane spotted the fire that afternoon.

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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.

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