Firefighting, structure protection, and public relations

Myrtle ICP July 26, 2012
What is left of the Myrtle Fire Incident Command Post at Custer High School, July 26, 2012. The fire is contained and has been turned over to a smaller Incident Management Team, a Type 3 team. Photo by Bill Gabbert (click to enlarge)

When the Myrtle fire, which is now contained, was threatening structures between Pringle and Hot Springs, South Dakota, many firefighters were assigned to structure protection. Most homeowners who evacuate have little understanding of what will happen around their house while they are hunkering down in a motel or school gym. Firefighters, when time permits, will do far more than spray water on the structure, as Lynn and Gardner Gray discovered when they visited their home near Pringle the day after they evacuated.

Jim Kent, a columnist for the Rapid City Journal wrote about the Gray’s experience in today’s edition. Here is an excerpt:

…During a return visit the following day, Lynn encountered four firefighters taking what she considered extraordinary steps to fully protect her property.

Once the Myrtle Fire moved out of range and the couple were back in their house, Lynn insisted I tour the property so she could point out the care and attention given by complete strangers.

From removing the propane tank on the Grays’ outdoor grill, to fully sealing their garage door and saturating 6 cords of wood stacked against the side of their home, the firefighters left no combustion hazard to chance.

They even took down a flammable decorative flag and repositioned a wood-handle rake before digging a protective trench around the property. In fact, the list of what the firefighters actually did is too long to include here.

And speaking of public relations, Craig Bobzien, the Forest Supervisor of the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota, met with a group of citizens from the Edgemont area who had concerns about how the White Draw fire was fought. Mr. Bobzien explained in a Rapid City Journal article attributed to him that he had heard about some complaints in the media and wanted to hear them first hand.

White Draw Fire
White Draw Fire, June 29, 2012 Photo by Bill Gabbert

Those citizens from the Edgemont have been generating a lot of publicity about how some of them thought the firefighters could have stopped the 9,000-acre rapidly spreading timber fire in late June if only they had paid more attention to the locals. Previously, on July 6 South Dakota Senator John Thune traveled to Edgemont with reporters and photographers in tow to also meet with those citizens. This was the fire on which a military C-130 MAFFS air tanker crashed, killing four members of the crew and injuring two others.

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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.

8 thoughts on “Firefighting, structure protection, and public relations”

  1. You’d have been better off without FS help? I find it hard to believe you were in Craven Canyon and lived to tell about it. The ridge on the south side of the canyon burned first (6/30), then Long Mountain on the north side of the canyon (7/1 and 7/2), then the canyon (7/3). In other words, the canyon and the mountainsides northwest of the canyon were the last to burn. As I understand it, the latter were backburns to save the Hey Ranch buildings. The plane went down on Long Mtn dropping slurry there on 7/1. The canyon did not burn until two days later, despite the lack of slurry and water drops there.

    You are correct that the engines were mostly not FS—but the FS called them in. Why? Because FS doesn’t have the resources to buy and staff enough engines to mind every home in the area. Not all homes are “fire-safe,” as you’ve no doubt observed, even after so many were lost in the Alabaugh Fire.

    I will agree with you that communication with the public was not very good. It was frustrating trying to find out what was happening on both this and the Myrtle fire. The FS isn’t perfect. But to state that FS employees don’t care about human life is false and mean-spirited. And to host a party to bad-mouth the people you didn’t invite is something I would expect (but would not tolerate) from 12-year-old girls, not grown men and women. I’m guessing that the Incident Commander was looking for water that was closer than Angostura–not much to work with there, as you know, except for private sources and was trying to get permission for that.

    I am sorry that this fire happened and that it caused so much stress and anguish in your community. But I’m also grateful that those people, cattle, and homes were saved. If you are OK with individuals using your losses and those deaths for political gain, so be it. I just happen to disagree. I haven’t forgotten about Trampas Haskvitz and I won’t forget the four airmen. Those canyons are treacherous in a fire. Much as I care about the amazing ancient art in those canyons, it was the least of my worries while the fire was burning. You are right that I’m passionate about those ancient sites, but even I would never put their preservation above the safety of human beings.

  2. As a landowner in Red Canyon, I do not think you have your facts straight.
    1. The incident team from Montana was in charge of the fire on our property and that who was by our house.
    2. Sunday eve, the head of incident team stated he had spent the day looking for water resources Where was his GPS?
    3. The plane didn’t crash until Sun eve. Craven Canyon was all ready burned by then. It was not the last to burn. The fire was burning Long Mtn when the plane crashed. I don’t need to check the maps, I was there.
    4. I don’t know who was allowed to attend the funeral as we were busy putting out small fires on our land.
    5. I don’t know about Hollenbeck land.
    6. The ranchers moved their own cattle out of harms way. They moved them again Sun eve when the fire blew up and raged to the North. It was local fire departments that set in our yard ready to protect our house and buildings.
    7. I would not question how Mr. Reuter died. They are good neighbors and I can’t image the pain and anguish they must have suffered in their loss.

    Once again, someone who wasn’t there telling how it was.

  3. The ranchers in the Red Canyon area were able to voice their concerns to the RCJ and were heard. The local paper would not take a stand for the area ranchers, as the editor is a county commissioner. It is easy for someone who lives outside the area and whose interest is the pictographs in Craven Canyon to think the fire was handled right. The FS only plan was to stay by and let it burn. Had Thune not made a presence, there would not have been an article. His follow up has been none for the ranchers. We are thankful the houses were saved, but pastures are gone. There is no grazing and this is the ranchers living. I do not see any factual errors in the article.

    1. 1. “FS didn’t talk to landowners.” That’s a real whopper and you know it.
      2. “FS didn’t know where the roads are.” Give me a break. FS built and maintains those roads. They have maps, air photos, GPS of the location of every road–FS, county, private– in the Hills, no matter how undeserving the name.
      3. “Not dropping water or slurry in Craven Canyon allowed the fire to spread.” It is true that nothing was dropped in the canyon. The reason for no slurry elsewhere was the plane crash. Duh. They were dropping slurry when it crashed. If this assertion were true, then Craven Canyon would not have been the last thing to burn, but it was. (Check the maps if you don’t believe me.) Obviously the lack of water/slurry there had no impact on the spread of the fire.
      4. “FS wouldn’t let local people attend the memorial service.” In fact, that was under the control of the military. FS had nothing to do with it. It is standard military protocol not to invite the public to those events. It is also military protocol not to release details until next-of-kin are notified. Might have been inconvenient for the curious, but it’s the right thing to do.
      5. “FS delay cost Hollenbeck his grass.” The fire broke out near his place. His pasture was already burned by the time the Edgemont FD got there. FS can’t fight a fire they don’t know about.
      6. “FS cares more about archaeology than human life.” Actually, fire plans go like this: 1. take measures to protect human life, 2. take measures to get livestock out of harm’s way, 3. protect occupied structures (homes), 4. protect other building that are in use (barns, etc), 5. protect structures that have been listed as historically significant, 6. protect archaeological sites. If you don’t believe me, look at a fire plan.
      7. This was implied, not stated as fact. Bill Reuter died “of stress.” Now, I was very sorry to hear of this. I don’t know the Reuter family well, but I have spoken with them over the years. I know they have been good stewards of the land and decent citizens. But Mr. Reuter’s heart attack is not the FS’s doing. My guess–not having seen an autopsy–is that he had a preexisting heart condition that was exacerbated by the smoke in the air.

      It is true that I care about archaeological sites. I’m an archaeologist. I talk to local people all the time who also care about them. If you don’t, I respect your opinion, but the US citizenry as a whole has been passing laws since 1908 to protect such places on federal and state lands for the benefit of all.

      Fed-bashing could be an Olympic sport in South Dakota. Complain and then stick your hand out for your crop subsidies, roads, bridges, grazing leases, drought relief, etc. I get that, but the FS consists of real people who are putting their lives on the line to protect you and your homes. THAT is a fact. The FS saved the Stevens Ranch, the Hollenbeck Ranch, and the Hey Ranch. Do you really think the Edgemont FD had the resources to do that? FS immediately helped ranchers find pasturage for the cattle. How many structures were lost? One–unoccupied and not in use. How many cattle? None. How many human lives? Four fire-fighters–and they were trying to save those ranches. To use their deaths for political gain is shameful.

  4. I realized that my suggestion for pre-fire preparation should include a resource for information:

    One can start learning here:

    The Red Cross also has check-lists for evacuation preparation on their site (and a page for pets)

  5. Re: Info from the Grays.

    Very nice that they shared some of the details of how firefighters go to great lengths to protect a structure. Now, as we read this story, hopefully ones will resolve to do a majority of these activities BEFORE the next fire threatens one’s property. Suggested tasks and preparation can be found from many sources.

  6. Thank you for this! I have been working on a response to that awful RCJ article featuring the spineless Mark Hollenbeck. The article contained at least 7 factual errors, which the reporter made little or no effort to correct. Hollenbeck was too big a coward to invite the FS to his “meeting.” What the article doesn’t state is that he is on the payroll of a Canadian mining company that wants to turn local sentiment against protecting historic resources in the areas where they want to mine uranium. It is absolutely shameful that RCJ let themselves be used as his mouthpiece. Firefighters SAVED his ranch. I was there yesterday, and the grass is already green again. The phrase that should have some out of his mouth was “Thank you, Black Hills National Forest.”

  7. “Those citizens from the Edgemont have been generating a lot of publicity about how the firefighters could have stopped the 9,000-acre rapidly spreading timber fire in late June if only they had paid more attention to the locals.”

    After similar complaints after the Derby Fire a few years ago in Stillwater and Sweetgrass Counties in Montana the Counties and the State began providing farmers and ranchers with basic wildland fire training and an efort was made to be better relations with the locals.


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