Since the Myrtle fire burned over 10,000 acres and racked up $4,000,000 in suppression costs, land managers in the Black Hills of South Dakota have become more proactive and aggressive in organizing to fight wildfires. The agencies have been attacking new fires with enough resources to stop the spread within the first burning period. And it has not been easy in all cases. While dozens of lightning-caused fires have burned less than two acres, a few fires have burned several hundred acres but were stopped the same day.
In addition — they have beefed up the number of ground resources available for initial and extended attack of new fires; have increased the number of helicopters available at Custer; on most days there have been a couple of heavy air tankers available at Rapid City; and today they announced that fire managers from the Black Hills National Forest, the National Park Service, and the South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire Suppression entered into an agreement to order a Type 2 Incident Management Team to operate a Command and Mobilization Center. The Team will be assisting with initial attack of fires that grow beyond the capabilities of local resources; assisting the local units by tracking and handling the administrative processes of incoming personnel, crews and equipment; and ordering and resupplying the tools, equipment and other items to ensure that firefighters are ready to go to the next fire.
These are all welcome improvements, and the land managers should be commended for their success in dealing with the many new fires over the last eight days.
This was not necessarily the case when the Myrtle fire started at 1:30 p.m. MT on July 19. From the radio traffic I heard, the first large air tankers were requested at approximately 3:40 p.m. and I saw the first one arrive over the fire at 7:14 p.m. By that time, the Type 1 Incident Management Team, which is used for managing the largest and most complex fires, had already been ordered. I don’t know if a squadron of air tankers over the fire in the first 30 minutes would have made a big difference, but for whatever reason, the fixed wing aerial resources were not available to assist the firefighters on the ground.
As we frequently say, air tankers don’t put out fires, boots on the ground do. But air tankers and helicopters can greatly enhance their effectiveness. An investment in flight time and retardant within the first 30 minutes can, in some cases, save the taxpayers millions of dollars and reduce the loss of lives and property. Having only nine large air tankers available on long term contracts for the entire country makes this objective difficult to achieve. Ten years ago we had 53.
On June 26 we provided a solution for reducing the number of megafires. It began like this:
Dr. Gabbert’s prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires: Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible…