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.