Report released for escaped prescribed fire in Wind Cave NP

Cold Brook Fire April 13, 2015

Cold Brook Prescribed Fire April 13, 2015, shortly after it escaped, crossing Highway 385. This is looking northwest. Photo by Benjamin Carstens (click to enlarge)

The National Park Service has released a “Facilitated Learning Analysis” (FLA) for the prescribed fire that escaped in Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota April 13, 2015. The Cold Brook prescribed fire spotted almost 200 feet across U.S. Highway 385 burning an unplanned 5,420 acres beyond the 1,000 acres planned, all within the boundaries of the park. There were no injuries and no structures or private property burned. (In the interest of full disclosure, for five years the writer of this article was the Fire Management Officer for the NPS’ Northern Great Plains Fire Management Group which includes Wind Cave NP.)

Overturned ATV Cold Brook RxDuring the suppression action an all terrain vehicle with two people on board overturned. It was destroyed immediately by the approaching fire as the firefighters “jogged side-slope away from the fire until they had sufficient visibility to see their escape route safely into the black.” The line gear belonging to one of the two firefighters was consumed in the fire, since he did not have time to retrieve it from the tipped-over vehicle as the fire bore down.

The 72-hour preliminary report on the incident stated that the FLA would be “due to the NPS Midwest Regional Director by May 29, 2015”. The report that was released through the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center is dated today.

The document, which you can download here (9 Mb), is long (62 pages of small font) and quite thorough. It delves deeply, very deeply, into the on site weather and long term weather records, as expected, and explores in detail the use of ATVs on prescribed burns and wildfires. In addition to discussion of the fire-related aspects of the analysis, the four writers, from the National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Forest Service, recommended that the “Technology and Development” program develop a wildland fire standard for equipment, configuration and performance of motorized off-highway vehicles.

The report includes a link to a time-lapse video, unlisted on YouTube, which I had not previously seen. Below is, first, a screen grab from the video, which we annotated, and after that the video itself. At 0:30, it goes by very quickly, but you can see the spot fire taking off.

Cold Brook escaped prescribed fire spot fire

It may just be the time compression of the video, but it appears that the ignition within a few hundred feet of the highway, including the patches of pines, was aggressive. A gust of wind that occurred as a patch of pines were burning intensely laid the smoke down close to the ground just before the spot fire became visible. The firefighters had expected that if there were spot fires on the east side, it would be short range and in grass, easily suppressed. In the video, it appears possible that burning embers could have been lofted from the patches of timber that burned intensely, rather than grass spotting into grass. Embers from heavy fuels and standing trees can travel much farther than from grass.

There are no earth-shaking revelations in the report. As is typical with FLAs, it has a long list of “notable successes”. Here are a few:

    • No injuries.
    • The fire remained within the park boundaries.
    • No structures burned.
    • Training and experience led to a smooth transition to suppression.
    • In spite of the escape, they still completed the prescribed fire.
    • Interagency involvement, response and support for both the prescribed and wildfire side of operations was quick and supportive with no delays.
    • Knowing that a Red Flag Warning was in the forecast for the next day, they aggressively staffed the night shift in order to pick up the escape, knowing that if they failed it would be difficult to acquire adequate staffing for the next day. They stopped the spread that night, therefore large numbers of resources were not needed the next day.

A sampling of some of the issues identified in the report:

  • There was pressure from the Chief of Resources in the Park to complete the burn that day.
  • There was a perceived need to burn on the high end of the prescription in order to achieve the desired level of tree mortality.
  • There were not enough firefighting resources on the east side of the burn when the escape occurred. More emphasis was placed on the south and west sides near the park boundary, areas with heavier fuels, where they figured escapes were more likely and would have serious consequences if they spread outside the park.
  • Because of drought, fuels were abnormally dry.
  • Before the project began, the Burn Plan was amended and approved, reducing the number of personnel required from 52 to 30. On the day of the burn 38 were assigned.
  • Staffing levels in fire management at Wind Cave NP have suffered reductions, as has most of the NPS, but there has been no reduction in expectations for the accomplishment of prescribed fires in Wind Cave or the other seven parks the Fire Management Officer is responsible for.
  • The Fire Management Officer reports to eight different park superintendents, all with different expectations, similar burn windows, and priorities for burning.
  • The eight-foot high bison-proof fence on the western boundary of the park and the burn unit would have required that if firefighters were about to be entrapped by the fire or if there was a spot fire across it, they would have to scale the fence. The location of the fence, and the boundary on that side of the project, was not easy to defend.
  • Some of the personnel interviewed for the report were disappointed that there was no After Action Review after the escaped fire.
  • Everyone assigned to the incident was qualified for their positions, except for one person whose Work Capacity Test expired four days before the prescribed fire.
  • The rollover of the ATV was the second one at the Park in three years. About 13 years ago another ATV caught fire on a prescribed fire in the Park and was destroyed, but did not roll over.
  • ATV training does not include learning to operate the vehicle on the fireline.
  • The Ag Pumps used on the ATVs on the incident had been switched out for Mini-strikers which do not provide enough power to be successful during aggressive suppression activities.

We have one criticism of the report, which is otherwise quite good. The maps are difficult to read. This is partially caused by the very dark background satellite image which does not add value but instead makes the maps, at least as they are represented in the .pdf document and viewed on a computer screen, almost useless. They might be more usable if printed, but who prints a 62-page report anymore? Unfortunately, maps are an integral part of documents like this.

One segment of the report that is interesting is that after acknowledging that risk is involved in prescribed fire, the authors wrote, “If you choose not to accept the risk of prescribed fire, then you may be transferring risk” to communities, the public, private lands, natural resources, or a situation that is significantly less manageable than the current situation such as a wildfire.

About four days after the incident South Dakota’s senior Senator, John Thune, sent a very strongly-worded letter to the Secretary of the Interior using phrases like “could easily have been prevented”, “jeopardizing lives and property”, “smoke will likely damage the lungs of young calves”, and demanding that reimbursement is made quickly to “private individuals, landowners, and local, county, and state entities who suffered economic losses”. Ready, Fire, Aim.

One of the conclusions identified in the report is:

The ignition of the prescribed fire was within the prescription parameters set forth in the prescribed fire plan, it was not ignited during a fire weather watch or warning and the burn was expected to be completed prior to the next day, April 14th.

The Senator also has introduced a bill that would require “collaboration with state government and local fire officials before a prescribed burn could be started on federal land when fire danger is at certain levels in the area of the prescribed burn”. The report has an entire section, Appendix Five, titled “Interagency Communication and Comment”. Here is an excerpt:

Interagency support for the prescribed fire program at Wind Cave National Park is strong, and the lead interviewer stated she heard “a tremendous amount of support” in the interviews she conducted. It is of note that the Great Plains Interagency Dispatch Center was one of the first in the nation to fully support not only Federal agencies, but the state of South Dakota as well, beginning in 2003. Since the Center serves as the central ordering point all agencies, communication is streamlined, and resource availability is better known to all the partners.

It was apparent to all Team members that NPS staff has put a great deal of effort into the Interagency working relationships over the years and are considered professional partners.

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.

Related articles on Wildfire Today:

Cold Brook prescribed fire escapes in South Dakota (updated with post-fire photos)
A UTV burned in the escaped prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park bounces back from escaped prescribed fire
Comparison photos, 6 days and 39 days after escaped prescribed fire
Senator criticizes Park Service over escaped prescribed fire
Bill introduced to require local approval or collaboration of prescribed fires
Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “escaped prescribed fire”
Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “prescribed fire”

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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.

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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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Tonight’s sunset picture, June 25, 2015

wind cave national park sunset

Sunset over the two month old Cold Brook prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park. Photo by Bill Gabbert, June 25, 2015. (click to enlarge)

Tonight’s sunset picture was taken June 25 in Wind Cave National Park within the April 15 Cold Brook prescribed fire. With the copious rain over the last couple of months the area is aggressively green.

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