Rainfall in western states slows wildfire season in many areas

Rainfall last 2 weeks washington oregon
Rainfall last 2 weeks, Washington and Oregon

Rainfall over the last two weeks has slowed or in some cases, ended the wildfire season in some areas.

On October 19 we ran the numbers for the accumulated precipitation for the last 14 days in the western states. These maps show amounts that exceeded 0.05 inches at some of the Interagency Remote Automatic Weather Stations (RAWS).

Washington, Oregon, and northern California have received a good soaking and I would imagine that local fire officials may be declaring an end to the fire season. Of course this is not unusual for these areas this time of the year, and some locations had already seen their season end. But what IS unusual, is the high amount of moisture that occurred in just two weeks.

You can click on the images to see larger versions.

Rainfall last 2 weeks, northern California
Rainfall last 2 weeks, northern California
Rainfall last 2 weeks central California
Rainfall last 2 weeks, central California

Continue to see maps for the other western states.
Continue reading “Rainfall in western states slows wildfire season in many areas”

Final size of Cottonwood Fire: 41,360 acres

Above: Final official map of the Cottonwood Fire, produced by the Incident Management Team.

The Cottonwood Fire that started 12 miles east of Wall, South Dakota has been contained. After GPS mapping the 16-mile long fire the incident management team determined it had burned 41,360 acres. Jim Strain, the South Dakota Chief Fire Management Officer, said most of those acres were burned during the first eight hours. And according to Darren Clabo, the South Dakota State Fire Meteorologist, it is the fifth largest on record in the state.

Tuesday night the local Type 3 Incident Management Team was released and turned the fire over to the Wall, Interior, Philip, and Kadoka Fire Departments, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, and Buffalo Gap National Grassland.

Livestock losses reported to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office stand at 137 as no additional losses were reported to the team.

Cottonwood Fire map
The map shows the APPROXIMATE location of the Cottonwood Fire, based on a satellite image from October 18, 2016. The thin green lines are county borders, and the thicker green line at lower-left is Badlands National Park. We made this before the Incident Management Team produced their final more accurate map.

Mr. Clabo sent the tweet below when the estimated size of the fire was 31,000 acres.

Mr. Clablo also looked at the data recorded at the weather station in Badlands National Park south of Wall.

Cottonwood Fire burns tens of thousands of acres east of Wall, South Dakota

(UPDATED at 1:51 p.m. MDT October 18, 2016)

map cottonwood fire
Preliminary map of the perimeter of the Cottonwood Fire, October 17, 2016. The red line was determined with the use of a GPS receiver. The rest of the perimeter is approximate.

Rain in the late afternoon and early evening on Monday helped firefighters working on the Cottonwood Fire 12 miles east of Wall, South Dakota.

Crews were able to assess damaged and destroyed structures inside the perimeter of the fire and it was determined that no primary residences were destroyed. An exact number of cabins, outbuildings and other structures that burned will  be determined on Tuesday.

The incident management team anticipates 100 percent containment by the end of the operational period today at 6:00 pm MDT.


(UPDATED at 6 p.m. MDT October 17, 2016)

The incident management team on the Cottonwood Fire 12 miles southeast of Wall, South Dakota at 4 p.m. today estimated that about 31,000 acres have burned, with the benefit of better mapping and the ability to evaluate the fire perimeter in the daylight. The team still intends to map the perimeter with a GPS receiver to finalize the data.

At about 6:10 p.m. MDT on Monday it was raining on at least part of the fire.

In addition to the 137 head of cattle that have been reported killed, structures were destroyed but the number of them has not been released.

There are no road closures in effect at this time and Interstate 90 currently has no restrictions in the fire area. Smoke should no longer pose a risk to motorists. The fire area will be clearly visible to travelers on I-90.

There are currently nearly 100 personnel working on the fire. At its peak, close to 300 firefighters were fighting the fire.


(UPDATED at 9:20 p.m. MDT October 16, 2016)

The name of the fire that started about 12 miles southeast of Wall, South Dakota has been changed from “131” to “Cottonwood”.

The fire is currently being managed by the Pennington County Type 3 Incident Management Team (PCIMT3) and is under Unified Command with representatives of Buffalo Gap National Grassland, Wall Fire Department, Jackson County, and Pennington County.

At 6 p.m. the incident management team estimated the fire had burned between 5,000 and 6,000 acres of private and federal land based on information from personnel in an aircraft. More accurate size information is expected on Monday and may result in a change, they said.

map cottonwood fire
This map produced by the Incident Management Team shows the approximate area of the Cottonwood Fire between Interstate 90 and Highway 14 south of Cottonwood Monday morning. They are currently working on a more accurate map made with the help of a GPS receiver.

Fire authorities reported that structures have burned, but did not provide any details on the number or if they were residences or other buildings.

All roads in the fire area were open at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Continue reading “Cottonwood Fire burns tens of thousands of acres east of Wall, South Dakota”

South Dakota: Battle Fire east of Hot Springs 

Above: Battle Fire at 9:40 a.m. MDT October 15, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

(UPDATED at 2:56 p.m. MDT October 15, 2016)

In the above photo we took Saturday morning the Battle Fire east of Hot Springs, South Dakota looks more benign than it did Friday night. Authorities are reporting it has burned 22 acres.

Fall River County Emergency Manager Frank Maynard said the fire was contained at 2 a.m. Saturday. It will continue to produce smoke for several days as the interior fuels smoulder.


(UPDATED at 12:12 a.m. MDT October 15, 2016)

The Battle Fire east of Hot Springs, South Dakota continues to spread. At about 11:30 p.m. the size was estimated at 10 acres, but since then has grown slowly to the south and southeast. Firefighters are using a South Dakota state dozer to construct fireline in addition to the crews from a number of engines. At midnight it was surprisingly warm and dry for mid-October. The temperature at the fire was 72 and the relative humidity was 26 percent.


(UPDATED at 10:17 p.m. MDT October 14, 2016)

At about 8 PM on Friday the Battle Fire broke out east of Hot Springs, South Dakota at the base of Battle Mountain. Firefighters were worried about it spreading to the top of Battle Mountain and endangering electronic sites. By about 9:25 p.m. after it had burned 5 acres the spread had been slowed. But the wind continued to cause spot fires out ahead of the main fire, challenging firefighters.

The fire started under a nearly full moon on the boundary of the Veterans Administration Hospital property east of the facility. Their fire department notified the Hot Springs FD and requested assistance.

A dozer was ordered to help improve a poorly maintained road in order to provide better access for fire engines.

The weather forecast for the fire area predicts 7 mph winds out of the northwest Friday night, slowing to 3 mph at 6 a.m. The maximum relative humidity will be 61 percent at 6 a.m.

For Saturday the National Weather Service expects 73 degrees, 24 percent relative humidity, and 10 to 12 mph west winds gusting to 16 after noon. These conditions could be conducive to continued fire spread.

Battle Fire
Battle Fire at 8:41 p.m. MDT October 14, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

South Dakota politicians covet Forest Service land in Black Hills

(UPDATED at 2 p.m. MDT October 7, 2016)

After one of our readers told us about the video above about the U.S. Forest Service trading away land, we added it.


(Originally published at 1:54 p.m. MDT September 27, 2016)

The four highest ranking politicians in South Dakota are backing legislation that would require the U.S. Forest Service to turn over two of the most beautiful areas of the Black Hills National Forest to the state. In exchange for approximately 2,000 acres, the USFS would receive an equal number of acres from four parcels in three counties scattered around the state. The size of the parcels could be adjusted based on an appraised value.

Pushing the land grab are Governor Dennis Daugaard, Senator John Thune, Senator Mike Rounds, and Representative Kristi Noem. The Senators have co-sponsored a bill in the Senate and Representative Noem has introduced similar legislation in the House.

The South Dakota politicians are trying to take from the federal government two of the crown jewels of the Black Hills National Forest — Spearfish Canyon and Bismarck Lake.

Spearfish Canyon
Spearfish Canyon, Google Street View

The state wants 1,468 acres in Spearfish Canyon. The road through the canyon, framed by towering 1,000-foot limestone canyon walls, is officially designated as a Scenic Byway. South of the city of Spearfish, it attracts large numbers of visitors to see the fall colors when the aspen turn brilliant yellow in September. One of the best known features is Bridal Veil Falls that cascades down a sheer 60-foot cliff alongside the road as it feeds the creeks that run through the canyon. Hikers enjoy the many trails that meander through the area. Fly fishermen take advantage of the incredibly scenic pools and rapids along the creek.

Bridal Veil Falls Spearfish Canyon
Bridal Veil Falls. Google Street View.

The second crown jewel the state wants to take from the federal government is 524 acres east of Custer, including Bismarck Lake. With the nearby campground, it is set amidst a scattering of aspen groves and Ponderosa pine at 5,000 feet. The lake supports populations of rainbow and brown trout, a variety of sunfish, smallmouth bass, northern pike, and catfish. At the campground, a short foot trail traverses the forested shoreline, offering opportunities for birding in early morning or picnicking in the afternoon.

Bismark Lake
Bismarck Lake, east of Custer, SD. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Bismark Lake
Bismarck Lake. Photo by Peg Sperlich.

The parcels of land the four politicians want to trade for these crown jewels are in the counties of Lyman, Pennington, and Lawrence.

Lyman County
Central Lyman County. Google Street View.

We don’t know exactly where in those counties the land is that the politicians want to trade for the USFS land, but the photo above is a typical scene in central Lyman County in the middle of the state, more than 150 miles east of the Black Hills National Forest.

If the land grab occurs, the state would use Spearfish Canyon to expand its Roughlock Falls Nature Area and designate it as a state park. The 640 acres around Bismarck Lake would be added to Custer State Park.

In written testimony during a Senate hearing last week about the bill, the USFS opposed the transfer of land. Leslie Weldon, the Forest Service’s deputy chief of the National Forest System, wrote, “the bill is unnecessary and contains provisions that raise concerns.”

Below is an excerpt from an article at NewsCenter1:

“Normally in a land exchange process, just like in a real estate transaction, you have a willing buyer, a willing seller, or at least two willing parties, and you have a mutually beneficial agreement,” said Mark Van Every, forest supervisor for the Black Hills National Forest. “And in this particular case, we don’t believe that this land exchange is mutually beneficial.”

Van Every said the Forest Service has invested heavily in both the Spearfish Canyon and Bismarck Lake areas, from campgrounds to trails and more. In addition to that predicted revenue loss, he said the Forest Service was not consulted on the bill.

Geese at Bismarck Lake
Geese on Bismarck Lake. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

“The state of South Dakota has proven time and again that it can preserve and protect South Dakota’s natural resources while providing unparalleled outdoor experiences that attract people from across the state and nation,” said Senator Thune. “I’m confident this track record will lend itself to creating similar opportunities in the Spearfish Canyon and Bismarck Lake areas once this land exchange is completed.”

Senator John Thune and Representative Kristi Noem are up for reelection in November.

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 GovTrack.us 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.