Grass fire in South Dakota

fire south of Hot Springs, SD

Two engines attack the north side of a fire south of Hot Springs, SD, July 27, 2015. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

At about 5:15 p.m. today, July 27, engines from the Hot Springs Volunteer Fire Department responded to and extinguished a grass fire several miles southeast of the town east of US Highway 385 in southwest South Dakota. We were able to grab a few photos as they worked their way around it using nozzles aimed at the fire from the safety and comfort of the passenger seats of the trucks.

The fire burned surprisingly well, considering it has been a very wet spring and summer in the Black Hills. As you can see in the photos, the grass is still pretty green, for late July.

At the initial attack, they called it 10 acres; I’m not sure what the final size was but they stopped it pretty quickly. Mopup was assisted by a thunderstorm that passed over the fire. Speaking of thunderstorms, there was a lot of lightning in the county before (and after) the fire, so that may have been the cause. It started in the middle of a field, not close to any road or structures.

Click on the photos to see larger versions.

fire south of Hot Springs, SD

Firefighters extinguish the remaining hot spots on a fire south of Hot Springs, SD, July 27, 2015. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

fire south of Hot Springs, SD

A view from the south, of a fire south of Hot Springs, SD, July 27, 2015. Photo by Bill Gabbert.


Some congressmen want to increase logging by suspending environmental laws

North Pole Fire Custer

North Pole Fire west of Custer, SD, March 3, 2015. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The House of Representatives has passed another bill that would suspend some environmental laws so that more logging can occur in federal forests. Similar to one passed in the House in 2013, it would enhance fire prevention and restoration, according to the proponents of the legislation which has three supporters in the Senate who introduced it there.

Below are excerpts from an Op-Ed in the New York Times about this effort which failed two years ago.

…Just as they did in 2013, supporters of this legislation are using the public’s fear of forest fires to advance their agenda. They argue that overgrown and “unhealthy” forests raise the risk of wildfires, and that the government has been hampered by litigation and environmental reviews from allowing timber companies to thin forests to reduce the risk of fire.

The legislation is rooted in falsehoods and misconceptions.

Some of the bill’s supporters claim that environmental laws regulating commercial logging have led to more intense fires. But, as we saw in the 2013 fire near Yosemite, known as the Rim Fire and one of the largest in California history, commercial logging and the clear-cutting of forests do not reduce fire intensity.

In the case of the Rim Fire, our research found that protected forest areas with no history of logging burned least intensely. There was a similar pattern in other large fires in recent years. Logging removes the mature, thick-barked, fire-resistant trees. The small trees planted in their place and the debris left behind by loggers act as kindling; in effect, the logged areas become combustible tree plantations that are poor wildlife habitat.

The bill’s supporters also argue that increasing logging and clear-cutting will benefit wildlife. But decades of forest ecology research strongly link the logging of both unburned and burned forests to the declines of numerous wildlife species, most notably the imperiled spotted owl.

Recognizing these findings, some 250 scientists sent a letter to Congress in 2013 opposing a similar version of the current legislation. They predicted, correctly, that the Rim Fire would actually benefit many wildlife species and rejuvenate the forest ecosystem, provided that the burned expanses were not then cleared by loggers…

The bill is titled, H.R.2647 – Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015. The status of it can be followed at As this is written, it has passed the House and now is before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry.

The Op-Ed was written by Chad T. Hanson, an ecologist with the John Muir Project, and Dominick A. DellaSala, the chief scientist at the Geos Institute. They are the editors of “The Ecological Importance of Mixed-Severity Fires: Nature’s Phoenix.”


Researchers find insect-killed forests pose no additional likelihood of wildfire

flames wildfire

Photo by Bill Gabbert

As mountain pine beetles and other insects chew their way through Western forests, forest fires might not seem far behind. Lands covered by dead trees appear ready to burst into flame.

However, an analysis of wildfire extent in Oregon and Washington over the past 30 years shows very little difference in the likelihood of fires in forests with and without insect damage. Indeed, other factors – drought, storms, and fuel accumulation from years of fire suppression – may be more important than insects in determining if fire is more or less likely from year to year.

Scientists reached this conclusion by mapping the locations of insect outbreaks and wildfires throughout Oregon and Washington beginning in 1970. Researchers discovered that the chances of fire in forests with extensive swaths of dead timber are neither higher nor lower than in forests without damage from mountain pine beetles.

The same comparison done on forests damaged by another insect – western spruce budworm – yields a different result. The chances of wildfire actually appear to be slightly lower where the budworm has defoliated and killed trees in the past. While the mechanics of such an association are unconfirmed, it’s possible that budworm outbreaks could reduce the risk of wildfire by consuming needles in the forest canopy.

“Our analysis suggests that wildfire likelihood does not increase following most insect outbreaks,” said Garrett Meigs, lead author of a paper published this week in the open-access journal Ecosphere. Meigs is a former Ph.D. student in the Oregon State University College of Forestry and now a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Vermont.

Across more than 49 million forested acres in both states, insects and fires typically affect less than 2 percent of the land in a given year. More forestland is usually disturbed by insects than by fire.

“Most forests have plenty of fuel already,” Meigs said. “Green trees burn, not always as readily as dead ones, but they burn. The effects of insects are trumped by other factors such as drought, wind and fire management.” For example, the 2002 Biscuit Fire, the region’s largest at nearly 500,000 acres, occurred in an area with little tree damage from insects.

“Even if mountain pine beetle outbreaks do alter fuels in a way that increases flammability, the windows of opportunity are too small – and fire is too rare – for those effects to manifest at landscape and regional scales.”

“In the case of the budworm, our findings suggest that there may be a natural thinning effect of insect-caused defoliation and mortality, and it is possible that insects are doing some ‘fuel reduction’ work that managers may not need to replicate,” said Meigs. That possibility needs more research, he added.

These results are consistent with other studies that have investigated the likelihood of fire across the West. For example, a 2015 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by University of Colorado scientists found that despite extensive outbreaks of mountain pine beetles in the Rockies and the Cascades, fires in recent years were no more likely to occur in beetle-killed forests than in forests not affected by the insects.

Public perception may reflect our experience with starting campfires, said John Bailey, Oregon State professor of forestry and co-author of the Ecosphere paper.

“We choose dead and dry wood for kindling, not green branches,” Bailey pointed out. “A dead branch with lots of red needles is ideal. At the scale of a forest, however, the burning process is different. Wildland fire during severe weather conditions burns less discriminately across mountainsides.”

For managers of forestlands, these results suggest that emphasis needs to be put on fuel reduction, forests near communities and on preserving ecosystem services such as biodiversity and water quality. “Forests will continue to burn whether or not there was prior insect activity,” Meigs and his co-authors write, “and known drivers like fuel accumulation and vegetation stress likely will play a more important role in a warmer, potentially drier future.”

The Ecosphere paper is available at

In addition to Bailey, Meigs’ co-authors included John L. Campbell, Harold S. J. Zald, David C. Shaw and Robert E. Kennedy, all of Oregon State. Funding support was provided by the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship Program and the USDA Forest Service.

Articles on Wildfire Today tagged Beetles.


Miss South Dakota for 2015

Autumn Simunek

Autumn Simunek, a few hours before she was selected to become Miss South Dakota for 2015. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Every year since the contest has existed the competition for Miss South Dakota, a step toward the Miss America pageant, has been held in Hot Springs, South Dakota. One of the final events in the local program is a parade through the streets of the town. Several times I have used it as an opportunity to practice my photography skills, shooting images of moving targets with a telephoto lens.

Yesterday, June 20, I again used it as training, and took pictures of all of the 16 contestants as they passed by in open-top convertibles. I did not attend the contest Saturday night, but found out Sunday morning a local lady, Autumn Simunek, became our Miss South Dakota.

Miss Simunek also won the preliminary talent award Thursday night, performing the classic pop vocal “Hallelujah.” The 22-year-old is a senior at the University of South Dakota.

It’s funny — the Miss South Dakota contestants totally understood the importance of smile-your-ass-off, but the youngsters in the “Little Sister” category did not get the memo.

The driver of Miss Simunek’s car stopped in front of me when she saw I was taking photos with what appeared to be high-end gear. So I shot a bunch of the contestant, then lowered the camera and gave them a thumbs up. Then they continued in the parade. That was the only car to stop for photos in my area.

Here are a couple of shots of Miss Simunek, and then a few other ladies, followed by a little fire truck porn.

Autumn Simunek

Autumn Simunek. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Rachel Evangelisto

Rachel Evangelisto. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Julia Olson

Julia Olson was the first runner up in the contest that night. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Carly Goodhart

Carly Goodhart. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Stephanie Fischer

Stephanie Fischer. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Hot Springs Fire Department engines

Engines from the Hot Springs Fire Department. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Photos from the 2010 Miss South Dakota parade.


CAL FIRE says vegetation conditions are the worst on record

Redding, CA sunset CAL FIRE engines.

Sunset in Redding, California enhanced by smoke from the Eiler Fire, August 10, 2014. (Click to see a larger version.) Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Below is an excerpt from an article at Capital Public Radio:

…CAL FIRE says the timing of this year’s rains and four years of drought will combine to make fire conditions in 2015 the worst on record.

“We measure the fuel moisture content of all of the vegetation -the brush and the trees and we track that over the course of time and compare it month to month each year,” says Ken Pimlott, Director of CAL FIRE. “And we put it through formulas and determine how much energy and how much heat it will put out when it’s burning. And we have seen -we saw it last year and we will see it again this year- we’ll be reaching records for potential heat output for times of the year that would normally not be burning in those conditions.

CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott urged homeowners to clear space and conserve water.

“We don’t have water to water lawns and unnecessary landscaping. So, what that means is, is you need to  remove that vegetation as it dries. We don’t want your dry lawn and your dry brush to contribute to more of the fire hazard. So, stop watering your lawn and remove it.”

Thanks and a tip of the hat got out to Barbara.