Former state wildland fire director to run for Governor

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Joe Lowe at the opening of his gallery in 2007.
Joe Lowe at the opening of his gallery in 2007.
Joe Lowe at the opening of his gallery in 2007. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Joe Lowe, the former Director of South Dakota’s Wildland Fire Division, has announced that he is running as a Democratic candidate for Governor. Before he managed the State’s wildland fire program for 10 years, he worked for the Orange County Fire Department in California and had served as the mayor of the City of Mission Viejo, California, which today has a population of 95,000.

In the summer of 2000 the 7,000-acre Flagpole fire and the 83,000-acre Jasper Fire were the largest fires to occur in the Black Hills in a number of years. Governor Bill Janklow, always a hands-on governor, was bewildered and flabbergasted by the fires and in many ways interfered with the Incident Commanders (your’s truly included) which at times created serious safety problems. On the Jasper Fire the Type 1 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 by state employees that put firefighters in danger, such as setting backfires and running dozers out ahead of the fire without coordinating with the Incident Commander or the Incident Management Team.

The next year Governor Janklow created the Division of Wildland Fire Suppression and hired Mr. Lowe to run the agency. His experience, management skills, and the fact that the Governor trusted him, established a welcome buffer between the Governor and the other wildfire organizations in the state. After serving 16 years as Governor, and later as a U.S. Representative, Mr. Janklow passed away in 2012. His political career ended after he was put in jail for blasting through a stop sign at over 60 miles per hour where he hit and killed a motorcyclist.

During his 10 years as the state Fire Chief, Mr. Lowe, working with his interagency partners, helped establish the Northern Great Plains Interagency Dispatch Center, the Great Plains Interstate Fire Compact, the State Handcrew Program, and the State Aerial Firefighting Program. He was Incident Commander of the Rocky Mountain Type 2 Incident Management Team C.

Mr. Lowe retired from the State government in January, 2012 and then was able to spend more time at his Rapid City gallery that he opened with his wife Wendy in May of 2007.

We asked Mr. Lowe (with our tongue planted in cheek), if elected as Governor, would he assume the practices of his “mentor”, Governor Janklow, and be very hands on, attempting to run wildfires in spite of the best efforts of the Incident Commanders. He assured us, while laughing, that while he would not always be stuck in his office if there was a major emergency in the state, he would allow the Incident Management Teams to do the jobs they were hired to do.

He said if elected, he would work to ensure that the state fire agency is adequately funded on a parity with other states, he would concentrate on forest health, continue the excellent interagency cooperation we have seen in the last decade in the Black Hills, and would emphasize prompt, aggressive initial attack on new fires.

One of the reasons he is running, he told us, is because of what he saw in the state during and after the very severe recent winter storm. Even though several counties in western South Dakota had their emergency operations centers working at maximum capacity, and there had been a Presidential Declaration, the state never opened their emergency operations center to help organize and assist the overwhelmed local and county organizations. The heavy snow, pushed by very strong winds combined with low temperatures, had a paralyzing effect in many areas and killed thousands of heads of livestock, which had a profound practical and economic effect in the state. He feels that there is much room for improvement in all-hazard management.

Running as a Democrat, and so far the only announced Democratic candidate, he faces an uphill battle in a Republican state during the November, 2014 election. Incumbent Republican Governor Dennis Daugaard is expected to seek another term. But, Democrats can win state-wide elections in South Dakota. Current Senator Tim Johnson and former Representative Stephanie Herseth are Democrats.

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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.