The Missoula Technology Development Center is producing a new supplemental training video for the use of fire shelters. Tentatively titled “Fire Shelter Deployments — Lessons Learned”, it will be a collection of stories of recent fire shelter deployments. One of those stories will be the Alabaugh Fire, of July 7, 2007, near Hot Springs, South Dakota in which two firefighters shared one shelter as they were burned over.
According to quotes in an article in the Rapid City Journal, Mike Rounds, the governor of South Dakota, appears to be bellicose and aggressive about fighting fire in the federal Black Elk Wilderness area in the Black Hills National Forest.
…there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.
….measures may be taken as may be necessary in the control of fire, insects, and diseases, subject to such conditions as the Secretary deems desirable.
Fire suppression routinely occurs in wilderness areas on national forests, but the use of motorized equipment in a wilderness area usually requires incident-specific approval from the Forest Supervisor, the highest-ranking federal employee at the national forest.
In the article, Governor Rounds implies that he would order state fire resources to take action on federal lands on which the fire suppression responsibility lies with the U. S. Forest Service (USFS). He appears to assume that the USFS would not suppress fires within the wilderness area, but as far as we know, that is not the case.
Here is an excerpt from the article:
Gov. Mike Rounds says wilderness designation won’t stop him from sending in state firefighting crews if a blaze breaks out in the Black Elk Wilderness, where a mountain pine beetle outbreak has increased the risk for a major wildfire.
“In an emergency, they’re going to have to stop me from going in,” Rounds said in a recent interview.
But federal forest managers say they, too, plan to fight fire within the Black Elk Wilderness. In fact, crews have fought fires in the Black Elk in previous years, according to Black Hills National Forest supervisor Craig Bobzien. The amount and type of equipment they would use depends on the fire threat level, Bobzien said.
Rounds has cited the Black Elk Wilderness, where pine beetles have killed up to 80 percent of the trees, as one reason for his opposition to a wilderness proposal for parts of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland east of Rapid City and his support for the National Park Service’s cancellation of fireworks for the Independence Day celebration at Mount Rushmore. The Black Elk lies next to Mount Rushmore National Memorial and now poses a threat of wildfire for the central Black Hills, including Rushmore to the northeast and Custer State Park to the south, Rounds said.
Even without fireworks, one lightning strike after a dry period could set off a conflagration, Rounds said. “It’s a matter not of if, but when you have a major fire there.”
Rounds said state firefighting crews would be aggressive if fire breaks out in the Black Elk.
“If it means going onto some wilderness areas in order to stop it, then so be it,” he said. “We’re going to stop it before it gets out and does damage to public property that belongs to the state of South Dakota and before it damages private property and before it gets out and has an opportunity to impact human life.”
But Rounds said he and other state officials are talking with Black Hills National Forest managers to prepare for the coming fire season, including the possibility of a fire in the Black Elk Wilderness or the surrounding Norbeck Wildlife Preserve.
Rounds and Joe Lowe, coordinator of the state Wildland Fire Suppression Division, say cooperation between the state and local Forest Service officials is good.
Bobzien agrees and says that the Forest Service can — and will — fight fire in the Norbeck and even in the Black Elk Wilderness. He said, in fact, that the Forest Service has fought fires in the Black Elk in previous years.
Bobzien said the 1964 Wilderness Act allows firefighting in wilderness areas, with varying restrictions for varying levels of emergency.
The greater the risk of catastrophic fire, the more that mechanized equipment can be used within the wilderness, he said. For example, if a lightning strike starts a fire in moist conditions, Bobzien can authorize hand crews with crosscut saws.
“We have done some of that already,” he said. “That’s routine throughout past fire seasons.”
But if fire breaks out in hot, dry conditions, mechanized equipment up to and including helicopters can be used to fight fire in the Black Elk, Bobzien said.
Governor Rounds’ attitude reminds me of his predecessor, Governor Bill Janklow, who threatened during the 83,508-acre Jasper fire in 2000, to order state fire crews to set backfires out ahead of the fire without any coordination with the Type 1 Incident Management Team that was running the fire. This, of course, would have put firefighters and probably private property at great risk. Bill Waterbury, the Incident Commander, ordered federal marshals to stand by at the incident command post who were prepared to arrest state employees (or even the governor?) if the backfires had been lit.
Janklow also ordered that National Guard dozers be used to build dozer lines way out ahead of the fire, independent of the organized fire suppression effort, creating significant safety and resource damage concerns.
When questioned about the safety of the dozer operation he ordered that did not have adequate supervision, Janklow said if a dozer gets burned over because the operator knows nothing about wildfire, he will just buy another one. When asked, “What about the operator” that gets burned over, he said, “Anyone can outrun a fire”.
In an excellent article by Denise Ross and Bill Harlan in the October 29, 2002 issue of the Rapid City Journal, the situation was described, in part, this way:
When Waterbury arrived as Type I commander, he and Janklow had a frank discussion about who was in charge of the fire.
Waterbury said he told the governor there would be only one incident commander on the fire. “I did make the comment that if it came down to a point of putting firefighters at risk or independent actions, whether that be private citizens or the National Guard, I wouldn’t hesitate to pull all of our firefighters off the line,” Waterbury said in a recent interview. “If necessary, we’d use our federal authority to arrest people who were interfering with our firefighting.”
Janklow recalled the conversation this way: “I told him, ‘You’re not going to arrest me or anybody else. Unless I have your word that this fire won’t go on private property, I’ll fight this fire wherever it’s at.’ And I did.”
But federal firefighters said the fire line Janklow cut damaged forest roads without helping to stop the fire.
I was the Incident Commander during the early stages of the Flagpole fire in 2000 when I received a midnight phone call from Governor Jankow informing me that he was sending fire engines and 17 dozers from all across the state to the fire. I told him that we had plenty of resources and didn’t need them, but those words fell on deaf ears.
Over the next few hours those resources started showing up, with no resource tracking or order numbers, and with no idea where to go or what to do. They just headed to the smoke with no assignment, accountability, briefing, or integration into the organization, creating huge safety issues.
When we turned the fire over to an incoming incident management team, Governor Jankow attended the inbriefing and sat in the front row. I kept waiting for him to speak up and try to dictate the strategy and tactics, but surprisingly and uncharacteristically, he remained silent while I facilitated the briefing.
After leaving the Governor’s office, Bill Janklow became the state’s Representative to the U.S. Congress. But after driving his white Cadillac through a stop sign at 63 to 70 mph and hitting and killing Randy Scott who was on a motorcycle going through the intersection, he was convicted of manslaughter and in 2004 was sentenced to 100 days in jail. In his State of the State speeches, Janklow had boasted about his lead-footed driving habits. After the felony conviction and two days before the sentencing, he resigned from Congress.
I hope Governor Rounds is not using Governor Janklow as his role model. And I suggest that all governors leave the firefighting to the professionals. Any fires in the Black Elk Wilderness will be suppressed, regardless of any ill-informed and ill-advised politicians’ blustering, which tend to strain interagency relationships.
The Rapid City Journal has an article by Steve Miller that pretty well summarizes the wildland fire situation in South Dakota and the Black Hills. Here is an excerpt.
“According to (Joe) Lowe (coordinator of the South Dakota Wildland Fire Suppression Division), state fire meteorologist Randall Benson said the data indicate a fire season this year that could approach that of 2000, when more than a quarter-million acres burned in the state. That year included the 83,500-acre Jasper Fire.
This year, Lowe said he will recommend contracting for at least three single engine air tankers, commonly called SEATs.
He said the division this summer will have only one heavy helicopter available from the South Dakota National Guard. That is down from as many as four heavy helicopters from the Guard in past years, Lowe said. “We’ve depended heavily on the National Guard for type 1 helicopters,” he said. “That’s no longer the case because of deployments.”
(Todd) Pechota (fire-management officer for the Black Hills National Forest) said the Black Hills National Forest will have the same amount of resources as it did last year, with one light helicopter, capable of carrying about 150 gallons of water; one heavy helicopter that can carry up to 1,000 gallons; 18 fire engines; three 10-member hand crews; the interagency Tatanka Hot Shot crew; and two bulldozers. [….] A government report earlier this month said Forest Service air tankers used to fight Western wildfires are potentially vulnerable to accidents. The agency owns 26 aircraft and leases 771 aircraft for firefighting. The Forest Service will require stricter inspections and maintenance on its leased aircraft.
Lowe said he didn’t know if it will become more difficult to get additional air tankers here. But, he said, “Anytime that we lose any of the tools out of the wildland fire toolbox in extreme fire conditions, that puts a strain on things.”
He also said it could become more difficult to hire the SEATs planes in the future. Pilots are finding it more lucrative to go back to crop-spraying operations, Lowe said.
He said his division’s budget has been maintained. The division currently has 17 fire engines, two hand crews and a batch of equipment that includes eight command trailers, a mobile kitchen and a mobile supply cache.
Lowe said the average fire season nationally has grown by 78 days over the past 15 years.