Landowners criticize management of White Draw fire

White Draw Fire June 29, 2012
White Draw Fire, 9:36 p.m., June 29, 2012, a few hours after it started. Photo by Bill Gabbert

In a meeting with Senator John Thune (R-SD) on Friday, some local property owners criticized the strategy and tactics that the Incident Management Team used while suppressing the White Draw fire, which burned 9,000 acres northeast of Edgemont, South Dakota.

Here are some excerpts from an article in the Rapid City Journal:

The Edgemont Volunteer Fire Department was the first on the scene, fire chief Paul Nelson told Thune.

Nelson is frustrated with the Forest Service’s handling of the fire in its early stages and its poor communication with local firefighters.

Several local volunteers and landowners believe the fire could have been stopped in the early stages if federal officials would have consulted with them on everything from roads to equipment availability.

The firefight was mismanaged, Ben Reutter said.

“They wouldn’t ask the local guys where the roads were. That’s unacceptable,” Reutter said.

Reutter’s father, 68-year-old Edward Reutter, suffered a heart attack shortly after the fire headed for his property last Friday. He died the same night at a Hot Springs hospital.

“It was the stress,” his daughter-in-law, Becky Reutter, said.

The fire started on the edge of some rough country, volunteer firefighter and rancher Toy Litzel said. “But it could have been fought.”

Forest Service officials were unaware of roads that could have given them better access to the fire and wouldn’t take the advice of the area’s residents, locals said.

“They didn’t listen to us,” Nelson said.

[…]

There was also an underlying regret among local residents that four lives were lost in the fire when a C-130 cargo plane from the North Carolina Air National Guard crashed July 1. Two members of the crew survived the crash.

The Forest Service’s lack of regard for the local community was evident when a memorial service for the fallen men was set for 6 a.m. July 5, without notifying local residents, Reutter said.

“A lot of people would have come,” he said.

After visiting with the Edgemont area residents, Thune conferred with fire officials and U.S. Air Force representatives.

Black Hills National Forest Supervisor Craig Bobzien assured Thune that his agency was “tied in with local firefighting resources very well.”

Bobzien said the local resources were used. Firefighters from larger departments were brought in so the local units could go home in case of new fires.

“I hope there wasn’t any sort of misunderstanding there,” Bobzien said. Bobzien assured Thune he would follow up on any concerns.

This is not the first time an Incident Management Team has been criticized for the failure to communicate with locals. For example, in April a Montana landowner was awarded $730,000 after some of their land burned in the 2000 Ryan Gulch wildfire.

Without knowing exactly where, how, and under what burning conditions the locals thought the IMTeam could have stopped the White Draw fire, it is difficult to say they are wrong. However, under the hot, dry, windy conditions while the fire was cranking out thousands of acres a day, no experienced wildland firefighter would have been out in front of it while it was exhibiting extreme fire behavior. And no ranch road, two-track, or Interstate Highway can stop a timber fire pushed by strong winds.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

11 thoughts on “Landowners criticize management of White Draw fire”

  1. Seems like people are looking for a scape goat. Where is the proof that the guy had a heart attack from “stress”? Sounds like emotions getting ahead of rational thinking.

  2. I have been involved in wildland firefighting in our area for more than 15 years. While IMC teams work well with the local entity for support AFTER the fire operation has been established, I have seen time and time again where they move in and work seperately from the local volunteer and state units already on scene. In fact, it is common for them to completely “release” local volunteer units back to station without even a “debrief” as to input those local units might have as far as geography, access, private equipment availability, etc. The volunteers are the BEST intel these IMC teams can access. they work there, train there, play there and live there! But they are “treated” as lowly “volunteers” whos “help was appreciated… but you can go home now. We’ve got it under control…”

    1. Joe, Thank you so much for your comments. As a wife of a local “volunteer” firefighter as well as the daughter of a rancher, I must exclaim AMEN to your statements. My husband was helping the IMC teams while still working and helping locals move cattle. He put in more than the normal 12 hour shift and still had other commitments to take care of (one day was over 31 hours which was low compared to other local “volunteers” that were helping). As for Beep Beep’s comments I must put the same thought back on you. The nation morns over the loss of 4 brave heros (and we morn here also) however, you bash a local rancher who died while caring for his animals during the fire. He was in the process of loosing his entire summer feed, I would call that STRESS. His family worked through the entire night moving cattle instead of morning his loss. Some close friends and local volunteer firefighters missed his funeral to help in the fire efforts.

  3. This would not be the first time an IMT was critized by the ranching community. Nor will it be the last unless these teams start understanding that there is more than “fuel” burning out there. Indirect tactics involving large scale burnouts costs the local ranchers important feed sources. Not knowing the local terrain and resouces leads to these kind of strategies. Not communicating with local expertise is inexcuseable.

    1. Within the Forest Service, it is the Agency Administrator’s responsibility to insure that IMTs from out of area (that means virtually all IMTs) are provided local expertise upon which to base decisions. The information may come from the AA him or herself or locals who can be brought on as AD technical specialists and assigned to the IMT. On a number of large fires on my district in years past we found this to be highly effective.

      I have found teams that were reluctant to use local expertise and others that welcomed the help. Depends a lot on the IC, IMHO.

      Curiously enough, though, when acting as an AA, I have been criticized by USFS personnel (primarily by over eager administrative types) on the use of local technical specialists as being financially wasteful.

      As to using local emergency services, in our remote town we always utilized the local EMT/ambulance service, but rarely used the local volunteer fire department. It was mutually agreed that their first priority was the protection of local structures and putting them on a fire would take them away from that responsibility. We did use them for structure protection during threats to local residences.

      The entire IMT/local relationship is anything but simple, especially when outside personnel are involved. Locals frequently do not have the training to be merged into a larger organization and fail to have adequate training to deal with wildfire. To restate my earlier point, it is the local agency official’s responsibility to facilitate communications between locals and IMTs as well as to insure local information makes it to all necessary levels in the IMT.

  4. Osage Wy. Evacuated at 1500. Forest service sitting in town, At 1600. 5 dozers, 4 blades. fire was crossing grass at this time. At 2200 Forest Service finally uloads and goes to work, fire now threatining private buildings and stock. And fire now back into trees. Where is the common sense in this.
    I think we get to into thanking people and overlook bureaucracy’s B.S.
    The everyday fire fighter does a wonderfull job. But this and many other examples show the best of intentions can be muddied by political jargon and hesitation..

  5. I livd up until a couple of years ago on the south coast of Oregon. Port Orford has this good volunteer
    FD several are retired CDF/Calfire folks. They know what they are doing. I don’t think just because the
    locals are there that no one is inexperienced or naieve about the condtions at hand -same way here in NE Oregon…

  6. …and I am familiar with more than a couple of volunteer fire departments who suck on the government teat and then refuse to learn, adopt or use ICS.

  7. For every member of the public who is trained and experienced in what it actually takes to action a wildfire effectively, efficiently and safely- there are 3 who would have you believe they could do the above but are simply incapable of making the calls to manage a wildfire of even moderate complexity.

    Almost every incident in interface situations have the Billy’s and Joe’s who think they can do the job better and have all the answers. While they might have some valuable insights, if things go sideways it lands on the IMT, not the peanut gallery.

    A fire, particularly in the initial attack stage, is incredibly dynamic and no decision is ever perfect. Stop armchair ICing.

  8. Politics aside, if it was not for the crew I was working on asp 4a, more farmers and ranchers would’ve lost a whole lot more than they did. And the ones our crew met with was very happy that we did not allow the fire grow as big as some might have thought. What people don’t understand is that some times in order to save their their house,ranch,or livestock we have to backburn a few extra acres,and unfortunately sometimes in the proscess we loose a brother or sister from the line.

  9. If only “locals” embraced IMTs the way they do visiting media, there would be far less of a story here.

    See: https://wildfiretoday.com/2012/07/08/a-view-of-the-white-draw-fires-incident-command-post-from-charlotte-nc/

    The PARTNERSHIP goes both ways.

    I was once on a “small” fire outside of Missoula. Had lots of problems communicating with the “locals” initially. Seems the problem was our hats that said, “XXX Incident Management Team”. One of the readers here (a local resident) said I should ditch the hat… I did.

    I bought a University of Montana “Griz” hat, used my Missouri accent… and everyone I met and worked with treated me great.

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