Custer State Park burns 560 acres

South Fork Prescribed Fire

Ignition begins at the South Fork Prescribed Fire, April 25, 2014. Photo by Andrew Tate.

Custer State Park, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, completed a 560-acre prescribed fire Friday afternoon near the buffalo corrals. The objective of the project was to improve grass habitat for buffalo and other wildlife and to enhance interagency cooperation and training for firefighters. Other agencies that assisted were South Dakota Wildland Fire, South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, the National Park Service, and the Black Hills National Forest.  

I arrived at the scene at about 1:30 p.m. thinking that the most active fire activity would be in mid-afternoon, but they were just finishing the ignition as I pulled up. With good planning, an early start, and with roads on some sides for firelines, a 560-acre prescribed fire in grass does not take all day.

South Fork Prescribed Fire. Photo by Andrew Tate.

South Fork Prescribed Fire. Photo by Andrew Tate.

The photos below were taken by Bill Gabbert for Wildfire Today and are protected by copyright.
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Fire and Ice

Bear Mountain Crewmember

The South Dakota Wildland Fire Division tweeted this photo today, saying:

Some like it hot! BearMtnCrew member mitigating potential creeping fire from a pile last week at Mt. Rushmore.

Robert Frost thought about fire and ice.

Fire and Ice
By Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.


Weather cited as primary issue in escaped prescribed fire near Hettinger, ND

Pautre Fire originA report issued by the U.S. Forest Service for a prescribed fire that escaped on the Dakota Prairie National Grasslands in northern South Dakota last year cited weather as being one of the primary factors in losing control of the fire.

The Pasture 3B prescribed fire 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.

On April 3, 2013 we wrote about the wildfire:

An article in The Rapid City Journal has more information about the impacts of the fire on the ranchers. Privately owned grazing, hay stacks, and miles of fencing were damaged or destroyed during the ranchers’ calving season. Here is an excerpt:

“Laurie Casper, 36, said the fire destroyed 95 percent of her family’s farmland, which is more than 1,000 acres.

‘We lost all of our calving pasture, we lost our summer grazing, we lost our fall grazing, we lost 100 percent of our alfalfa— which we cut for hay bales in order to feed the cattle this oncoming winter— all that’s completely gone,’ she said. ‘And there’s just just miles and miles of fences that are completely gone.’ “

The prescription in the project’s burn plan for the maximum wind speed at eye level was 15 mph and the maximum wind speed at the 20-foot level was 20 mph. One of the spot weather forecasts for the morning of the prescribed fire predicted the passage of the cold front, with winds shifting from the south at 5 to 11 mph in the morning, to northwest at 25 mph with gusts to 30 mph in the afternoon. The actual weather that day was very similar to the forecast.

About a month later, another prescribed fire not too far away, at Devils Tower National Memorial in western Wyoming, also escaped, due partially to strong winds. That report still has not been posted on the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center website. We were told today that was due to a glitch, and it will appear there very soon, possibly as early as today, February 4. (UPDATE, February 5, 2014: the National Park Service arranged to have the Devils Tower report posted late in the day on February 4. We wrote about it here.)

Pautre Fire. US Forest Service photo.

Pautre Fire. US Forest Service photo.

The report said firefighters concluded they would not do much different next time (page 12):

Firefighters did an excellent job of planning, organizing and executing this prescribed fire and adhering to the prescribed fire plan. Following the control of the escaped fire some firefighters had difficulty thinking of anything they would do differently next time. While it is true that we work in a dangerous environment with unexpected changes in weather, we strive to be a learning culture and continuously improve our ability to make decisions that evaluate risk and get work done on the ground.

Some of the issues listed by the Facilitated Learning Analysis team 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].

The commendations section included this:

The personnel involved in all levels of the Pasture 3B prescribed fire were motivated, worked well as a team, were adequately trained, and appropriately briefed. They had a keen awareness that this was the first burn of the year, and took numerous precautions to ensure successful completion of the prescribed fire.

We did not see any mention in the report of damaged fences, hay, or pastures.

Some ranchers in western North Dakota donated hay to the South Dakota ranchers who lost theirs in the escaped prescribed fire.


Possible budget cuts for South Dakota firefighting

A retired public information officer for the Black Hills National Forest, Frank Carroll, has written an op/ed column for the Rapid City Journal in which he mentions the possibility of “hard cuts” to the budget for South Dakota’s Wildland Fire Suppression Division. In the article he quotes Joe Lowe, the Director (or Fire Chief) of the Division who retired last January. Chief Lowe can be credited with rebuilding the organization over his 12-year tenure into one of the best state firefighting agencies in that part of the country.

Below is an excerpt from the article:

…“I had a good organization and the story needed to be told to the Legislature. … If they wanted to keep the [Black] Hills safe, they needed to spend the money,” [Chief Lowe] said.


“All of our fires involved private, state, and federal lands,” he said. “We kept fires small through sustained initial attack. We needed hand crews first, then fire engines, dozers, and aircraft, and we got them because the Legislature understood the need. Building a Type Two national fire team allowed our firefighters to hang on three or four days until help could arrive.”

Every year the Legislature has to buy in to the vision through the appropriations committees and this year is no different. There is talk of hard cuts to the organization it took so long to build, cuts that could cripple our firefighting capacity.

It’s important to remember our strong fire community happened for a purpose. Now is not the time for cutting back.

The state of Colorado, which probably has a much larger budget, could learn some lessons from South Dakota about how to build a state wildland fire organization. Hopefully, the South Dakota legislature will not dismantle it, and it can continue to serve as an example.

If you want to read the entire article it can be found here at the Rapid City Journal website. But be warned that a huge, loud, annoying, offensive, video advertisement may take over your screen for a while. I recommend that you don’t visit the site.


Thanks and a hat tip go out to Steve.


White Draw Fire, historic cabins, one year later

White Draw fire, old cabin 6-30-2012

The above photo shows some historic cabins on June 30, 2012 that firefighters worked hard to protect during the White Draw Fire northeast of Edgemont, South Dakota. The photo below was taken yesterday, about 16 months later. Both were shot by Bill Gabbert.

White Draw Fire, old cabin, 11-16-2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert

This was the fire on which the MAFFS 7 air tanker crashed on July 1, 2012, killing four crew members and injuring two. In July a memorial was dedicated a few miles away from the crash site in memory of the aerial fighters.