Jay Esperance named Director of Wildland Fire Suppression in SD

Jay Esperance
Jay Esperance, while on assignment as Operations Section Chief in Australia, March, 2009. Photo credit: Jim Raudenbush

Jay Esperance has been selected as the new Director of the Division of Wildland Fire Suppression in South Dakota. Mr. Esperance replaces Joe Lowe who retired January 23.

Mr. Esperance will begin his new job on February 13. His present position is Fire Management Officer for the Bureau of Land Management’s High Plains District out of their Casper, Wyoming field office. He has had some fire experience in South Dakota, most recently being assigned as the Incident Commander on Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team C the day following the death of Trampus Haskvitz, August 11, 2011 on the Coal Canyon fire north of Edgemont, SD. He was also the Deputy Incident Commander on the Whoopup fire several miles north of the Coal Canyon fire in July, 2011 (slide show of photos of the Whoopup fire).

Below is the news release from the South Dakota  Division of Wildland Fire Suppression:


Esperance Named Director of Wildland Fire Suppression for SDDA

PIERRE, S.D – Jay Esperance has been named as the new Director of Wildland Fire Suppression for the South Dakota Department of Agriculture (SDDA). He will begin his duties on Feb. 13.

“Jay is a great addition to the department,” said South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Walt Bones. “His experiences in fire management will be an asset to residents of the Black Hills and the forestry industry.”

Esperance, who has a bachelor of science degree in Resource Management from the University of California-Sacramento, has spent the past 11 years as a fire-management officer for the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Prior to that, he spent 23 years with the U.S. Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest working primarily in reforestation and timber stand improvement and later in forest genetics.

As director of Wildland Fire Suppression, Esperance will oversee a number of wildland fire prevention and suppression programs on state and private lands.

“It’s an honor to be selected for this position,” he said. “I’m excited to work with the professional staff in the Division and anxious to work closely with the cooperating agencies and to provide fire protection for the residents of South Dakota.”

Esperance was the Operations Section Chief on two assignments to Australia; he also assisted with emergency support and recovery in New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and he has responded during five hurricanes.

South Dakota state Fire Chief retires

2000 Jasper fire
The Jasper fire, about 2 hours after it started on August 25, 2000. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Joe Lowe, the Director (or Fire Chief) of the South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire Suppression retired on Monday. Joe was the first and so far the only Director of the agency that was formed in 2001. Before accepting that position, he worked in wildland fire suppression in southern California.

During most of the decade of the 1990s, there were few large fires in South Dakota. That began changing in August of 2000 when the Flagpole and Jasper fires burned 7,000 and 83,000 acres respectively in the Black Hills. Then-Governor Bill Janklow, who died of brain cancer on January 12, became extremely interested in wildfire suppression at that time.

I was the Incident Commander on the Flagpole fire for the first two days and received two late night phone calls from the Governor telling me he was sending resources to the fire, including 17 dozers and dozens of fire engines from across the state that later just showed up on the fireline. This was outside of the ordering system and the Incident Command System, and created havoc and safety issues on the fire. The Governor also directed that National Guard dozers take independent action on the Jasper fire, and threatened to start backfires without coordinating with the Type 1 Incident Management Team running the fire. The Incident Commander placed a resource order for U.S. Marshals who stood by at the Incident Command Post ready to put a halt to any actions that put firefighters in danger.

The next year, the Governor created the Division of Wildland Fire Suppression and put Joe in charge. Joe’s experience, management skills, and the fact that the Governor trusted him established a buffer between the Governor and the other wildfire organizations in the state — and we heard a collective sigh of relief. Joe brought additional professionalism and the concept of initially attacking fires with “overwhelming force” to the Division.

During his 10 years as the state Fire Chief, Joe, working with his interagency partners, helped establish the Northern Great Plains Interagency Dispatch Center, the Great Plains Interstate Compact, the State Handcrew Program, the State Aerial Firefighting Program, and the Rocky Mountain Type 2 Incident Management Team C.

Steve Hasenohrl, Assistant Chief for Administration, is the Acting Director until Joe’s replacement is named.

I tried to get in touch with Joe today, calling his gallery, Reflections of South Dakota, but he was out doing a television interview and setting up the gallery’s booth at the Black Hills Stock Show and Rodeo which begins January 27. Joe has been an avid photographer for years, and opened the gallery with his wife Wendy in May of 2007.

His plans are to remain in the Rapid City area and to be available for assignments on large fires.

Joe Lowe at gallery
Joe Lowe at the opening of his Gallery in Rapid City, May 4, 2007. Photo by Bill Gabbert

Firefighter entrapped in Coal Canyon fire interviewed

Austin Whitney
Austin Whitney

The Coal Canyon fire in South Dakota left one firefighter dead and another hospitalized with serious burns. Trampus Haskvitz was killed but his crew mate, Austin Whitney, is out of the hospital and recently submitted to an interview on a local television station. The video is HERE, and below is a portion of the transcript:

It’s a nightmare scenario for firefighters: being trapped in a fire with no way out.

“I just thought, ‘I’m never going to see my family again,'” Austin Whitney said.

On the afternoon of August 11, Whitney was battling the Coal Canyon Fire with two other men, KC Fees and Trampus Haskvitz, when the fire overtook them.

“When I looked up and seen nothing but a wall of flame, I tried to make a run for it. I wasn’t thinking straight,” Whitney said.

The fire had gotten below the crew and was racing up the hill towards them.

“Then I realized that it wasn’t worth running and I just dropped to the ground, no time to get to my fire shelter,” Whitney said.

Unprotected on the ground, Whitney believed that his life was over.

“As soon as I got turned around and saw that wall of flame I was like, ‘I’m dying at 22 years old. I’m dead,’ was the only thing I could repeat in my mind. ‘I’m dead,'” Whitney said.

Other articles on Wildfire Today about the Coal Canyon fire.

South Dakota: A third engine burnover on October 5

Earlier we had a report of two burnovers of engines on two fires in South Dakota on October 5. We just found out from Jim Strain about another one that occurred the same day.

Subject: Third Engine burnover in South Dakota

Wednesday, October 5th, saw yet another report of an entrapment on a prairie fire in the State of South Dakota. This is the third burn over/entrapment incident to be reported for that date. This incident occurred in Hutchinson County, about 1 mile South and 1 ¼ miles west of Tripp, SD. Jim Burk called the fire department today and gathered some more facts on the situation.

The fire was burning in CRP (Fuel Model 3) and had jumped the county road. The Tripp VFD engine was driving through the smoke, become disorientated, and drove down the steep embankment on the south road ditch. The engine did not roll, but as the firefighters exited the vehicle, one firefighter twisted his ankle trying to get up the steep embankment, and the other firefighter tried to crawl up the ditch, but could not, so exited the ditch running towards the west. That firefighter sustained 2nd degree burns to the face and arms. He will require skin grafts on the upper arms and is in the hospital at Sioux Falls. No damage to air ways. The firefighter was wearing his structure turn out bunker pants.

The weather from the nearest RAWS (Lake Andes) showed 95 degrees, 19 RH and winds SE at 25.

I have filed the ‘Wildland Fire Fatality and Entrapment Initial Report” through GPC and RMCC to NICC.

The SD Fire Marshal’s Office is checking into this report as well. This report is initial, and all information is preliminary and subject to change.


Asst. Chief — Operations, South Dakota Dept of Agriculture – Division of Wildland Fire Suppression

Update on firefighter burned on the Coal Canyon fire (updated)

(Scroll down to see an update.)

The Rapid City Journal has an article that updates us on the condition of Austin Whitney who was seriously burned on the Coal Canyon fire in southwest South Dakota August 11, 2011. Austin’s partner on the engine crew that was burned over, Trampus Haskvitz, was killed on that fire.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

Firefighter Austin Whitney said he will be back at his job with South Dakota Wildland Fire Supression as a seasonal firefighter.

“I’m still a little sore in the arms, but that’s why there’s physical therapy,” Austin, 22, said Wednesday during a telephone interview from the Western States Burn Center at North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley, Colo. Doctors will tell Austin today if he is ready to head home to Hot Springs and begin the next phase of his recovery.


“The pain was unbearable,” Austin said, when asked about his injuries. Immediately after the incident, all he wanted to do was go home and see his family, he said.

Austin has a lengthy recovery ahead of him. He had four skin grafts Aug. 15 to cover third-degree burns on his left arm and second-degree burns on his right arm and both calves. The largest is about 29 inches along and covers most of his left arm. Skin was grafted on his right elbow and small areas below the elbow, and there are 4-inch by-6-inch grafts on the calf of each leg, his father, Robert Whitney, said.


Austin Whitney said his personal protective fire-resistant clothing “did its job for what I was in.” His leather gloves prevented any significant injuries to his fingers. He had only a couple minor burns on a finger and thumb.

For the next year, Austin will require therapy to flex and stretch the skin grafts. Most of his range of motion has returned, his father said.

“On the elbows, I still need to stretch the skin,” Austin added, noting that the graft areas are still tender. “Everything else, I’m doing just fine.”


Since his hospitalization, Austin has received visits from countless firefighters. His T-shirt and hoodie collection of fire agency logos has grown by 16 pieces.

The cards, flowers and letters made a “big difference” in Austin’s recovery, Robert Whitney said.

The Wildfire Firefighter’s Foundation has assisted the Whitneys with their expenses in Greeley, Robert Whitney said. He suggests that anyone who is interested in supporting firefighters make a donation to the organization.

“It’s an overwhelming deal, that when something like this happens, how the firefighter brotherhood will band together and support the families and friends,” Robert Whitney said.


Austin remembers most of what happened the afternoon of the fire, but there are parts of the incident he cannot talk about because of the investigation.

“I do know that I did get pulled out by a couple Forest Service guys,” Austin said. “They got me into a safety zone after the fire was backing down.”

According to a U.S. Forest Service 72-hour report on the incident that killed Haskvitz, Forest Service, state and volunteer firefighters responded to the fire about 1:30 p.m. in Coal Canyon, 9 miles north of Edgemont.

Firefighters were digging a line around the flank of the fire when they were trapped about 3:10 p.m., when their escape route was overtaken by what the report termed a “rapidly spreading fire.” Haskvitz died in his vehicle, according to the report.

Austin said there wasn’t time for him to deploy his “shake and bake,” the small safety tents wildland firefighters carry.

“I didn’t have time to. I wish I would have,” Austin said.

Austin Whitney has told his father that flames were probably 100 to 200 feet tall coming up the canyon.

“It was just one of those things you just couldn’t avoid,” Austin said. “It’s one of those things that everyone wishes they could have” avoided.

The Forest Service firefighters who pulled Austin Whitney out of the fire have not been identified by fire authorities.

Robert Whitney joins his son in thanking those firefighters.

We hope Austin has a speedy recovery.


UPDATED at 4:40 p.m. MT, August 25, 2011:

Jim Strain of the South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire Suppression tells us that Austin was discharged from the Burn Center in Greeley, CO this afternoon. His plans are to stay overnight in Greeley and visit some local fire departments on Friday morning before returning to his home in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Then with visiting nurses, he will continue home care, including rehab and physical therapy.

This is good news!





Air tanker base, and a fire south of Hot Springs, SD

Fire south of Angostura reservior

Today I took take a few photos at a grass fire south of Hot Springs, South Dakota, near Angostura Reservoir. Fire departments from Hot Springs, Oelrichs, and Mennekahta responded and had it knocked down pretty quickly.

Fire south of Angostura reservior
An engine and water tender from Oelrichs FD

Fire south of Angostura reservior

Returning to Hot Springs, I stopped by the air tanker base at Hot Springs Municipal Airport. Hot Springs is one of five Single Engine Air Tanker (SEAT) bases in or near South Dakota. The others are at Pierre, Buffalo, Lemon, Rapid City (which can also handle large air tankers), and Newcastle, Wyoming. Hot Springs is the main SEAT base and is the only one continuously staffed, and is open June through October.

As far as I know, no air tankers were dispatched to the fire near Angostura Reservoir pictured above. Today Tanker 466 was working out of the base and reloaded numerous times as it worked the Sheep Wagon fire (BKF-622) about 10 miles southeast of Newcastle, WY. The aircraft is operated by Taylor Aviation out of Fort Benton, Montana. South Dakota has one SEAT on exclusive use contract this year but has several others available on Call When Needed (CWN) agreements.

Continue reading “Air tanker base, and a fire south of Hot Springs, SD”