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.


Cold Brook prescribed fire escapes in South Dakota (updated with post-fire photos)

(UPDATED at 4 p.m. April 19, 2015)

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.

After being out of town for a while, today we saw the Cold Brook escaped prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota for the first time. Our initial impression was that a very small percentage of the Ponderosa Pine trees lost their canopies to the fire; the mortality was very low. This is largely due to a series of prescribed fires that were conducted in the area about 13 to 16 years ago. Those burns eliminated some trees and “raised the canopy” on many; that is, some of the lower limbs were burned off reducing the ladder fuels that could later carry a fire into the crowns.

Approximately 5,420 acres burned outside the prescribed fire unit, all within the National Park.

The fire would have burned private land outside the park if the Casey Ranch south of the park had not been added a few years ago. The fire burned quite a few acres east of Highway 385 and south of the former park boundary.

In that area, a residence that remains on private land had the fire burn right up to their back yard, as you can see in the photo below.

Cold Brook Fire

The fire burned up to the back yard of a private residence near Highway 385. A blackened area can be seen on the left side of the photo.

When the fire escaped, it ran to the east for about four to five miles.

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.

All of these photos in today’s update were taken by Bill Gabbert. Click on them to see larger versions.

Cold Brook Fire

Cold Brook Fire

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

Cold Brook Fire


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Wind Cave NP conducts 1,000 acre prescribed fire

prescribed fire Wind Cave NP

Cold Brook #2 prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park, April 13, 2015. Photo provided by Great Plains Fire Info.

(UPDATE at 9:40 p.m. MDT, April 13, 2015: the prescribed fire escaped and burned an additional 1,000 acres.)


(Originally published at 2:21 p.m. MDT, April 13, 2014)

On Monday April 13 employees at Wind Cave National Park began igniting another 1,000 acres of the Cold Brook prescribed fire project in the southwest corner of the park about 5 miles north of Hot Springs, South Dakota. It was started in October, but could not be finished at that time because of weather and vegetation conditions.

prescribed fire Wind Cave NP

Map showing heat detected by a satellite which was generated by the Cold Brook #2 prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park.


Court rules in favor of the Forest Service over escaped prescribed fire

map of davis fire August 27 2010

The map of the Davis fire, an escaped prescribed fire in Montana, shows heat detected by satellites during the early morning on Aug. 27, 2010. Click to see a larger version of the map.

The U.S. Forest Service dodged a bullet recently when the agency received a very favorable ruling from a Federal court judge over a 2010 escaped prescribed fire in Montana. 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 Plaintiff in the case was Kent Taylor, the landowner of a 146-acre parcel of which 142 acres burned, including some lodgepole pine.

Firefighters ignited the Davis 5 prescribed fire at 1 p.m on Wednesday, August 26, 2010 on the Helena National Forest 11 miles southeast of Lincoln and 28 miles northwest of Helena in Montana. By 2:00 p.m. strong winds became a problem and the fire moved into the tree canopy. All ignition ceased, but soon there was a spot fire which burned 20 acres in heavy mixed conifers. When all personnel left the fire at 10:00 p.m. to avoid the hazard of falling trees, the spot fire had been partially lined.

The next day, Thursday, additional personnel were on scene. They were completing the fireline and gridding for other spot fires when an undetected one took off at 1:00 p.m. which quickly transitioned to a crown fire. The prescribed fire was declared an escape at 1:15 p.m. and a Type 2 Incident Management Team was requested at 2:27 p.m. By nightfall the fire was estimated at over 1,600 acres on federal land and 450 acres on private lands involving multiple landowners. Approximately 22 structures were evacuated on Thursday afternoon and evening.

Both the court decision and the official USFS report on the escaped prescribed fire failed to consider the significance of the differences between a spot weather forecast issued the day before the prescribed fire and the spot weather forecast that was issued at 10:43 a.m. Wednesday, August 25 on the day of the burn, about 2 hours before the firefighters ignited the final test burn. In fact, the Judge’s decision does not mention the 10:43 a.m. forecast that 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, a bad habit the NWS needs to break):


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.

Again, the judge’s written opinion does not mention the last spot weather forecast, which was issued the morning of the ignition.

Even though ignition on the prescribed fire did not begin until 1 p.m. the USFS Burn Boss planned to have the 100-acre project essentially mopped up by the end of the day, anticipating for the following day the winds predicted in the now obsolete forecast: “winds upslope 3 to 6 mph, ridge top winds southwest 5 to 10 mph with gusts to 15 mph”.

In light of this very favorable court ruling, Jamie Kralman, a USFS Regional Fuels Specialist for the California region, distributed the good news, saying in part:

…I could really see the mindfulness of the agency personnel involved demonstrating High Reliability Organization (HRO) principles in their planning and implementation.  All key personnel met or exceeded minimum qualifications, planning and implementation was by appropriate certified personnel, appropriate line officer involvement and approvals occurred, and The Interagency Prescribed Fire Planning and Implementation Procedures Guide was followed in development of the Burn Plan.  The Court opinion also demonstrates support for use of The Interagency Prescribed Fire Planning and Implementation Procedures Guide.

This legal outcome is clearly consistent with what we have been teaching  in Prescribed Fire courses, Burn Boss Refresher training, and in other venues in this region regarding lack of personal liability in our prescribed fire operations and that  “…strict liability does not apply and the discretionary function exception applies…” because the action involved ‘an element of choice’ and the action was taken ‘based on consideration of public policy’.



Escaped prescribed fire in California required evacuations

A prescribed fire near Victorville, California escaped on March 31 causing mandatory evacuations in the southern California desert community. Two helicopters assisted firefighters in stopping the 185-acre blaze as it burned through heavy vegetation that had not burned in years.

The project in Mojave Narrows Regional Park was designed to remove cattails, but firefighters said shifting winds caused it to grow out of control Tuesday afternoon.

A car and an outbuilding burned in the fire. The evacuations were lifted after several hours.