Weather cited as primary issue in escaped prescribed fire near Hettinger, ND

Pautre Fire origin

A report issued by the U.S. Forest Service for a prescribed fire that escaped on the Dakota Prairie National Grasslands in northern South Dakota last year cited weather as being one of the primary factors in losing control of the fire.

The Pasture 3B prescribed fire was planned at 210 acres, but strong winds on April 3, 2013 caused by the predicted passage of a cold front pushed the fire across a mowed fire line into tall grass and ultimately burned 10,679 acres, (3,519 acres federal and 7,160 acres private). The wildfire, named Pautre Fire, was stopped at 11 p.m. that night.

On April 3, 2013 we wrote about the wildfire:

An article in The Rapid City Journal has more information about the impacts of the fire on the ranchers. Privately owned grazing, hay stacks, and miles of fencing were damaged or destroyed during the ranchers’ calving season. Here is an excerpt:

“Laurie Casper, 36, said the fire destroyed 95 percent of her family’s farmland, which is more than 1,000 acres.

‘We lost all of our calving pasture, we lost our summer grazing, we lost our fall grazing, we lost 100 percent of our alfalfa— which we cut for hay bales in order to feed the cattle this oncoming winter— all that’s completely gone,’ she said. ‘And there’s just just miles and miles of fences that are completely gone.’ “

The prescription in the project’s burn plan for the maximum wind speed at eye level was 15 mph and the maximum wind speed at the 20-foot level was 20 mph. One of the spot weather forecasts for the morning of the prescribed fire predicted the passage of the cold front, with winds shifting from the south at 5 to 11 mph in the morning, to northwest at 25 mph with gusts to 30 mph in the afternoon. The actual weather that day was very similar to the forecast.

About a month later, another prescribed fire not too far away, at Devils Tower National Memorial in western Wyoming, also escaped, due partially to strong winds. That report still has not been posted on the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center website. We were told today that was due to a glitch, and it will appear there very soon, possibly as early as today, February 4. (UPDATE, February 5, 2014: the National Park Service arranged to have the Devils Tower report posted late in the day on February 4. We wrote about it here.)

Pautre Fire. US Forest Service photo.
Pautre Fire. US Forest Service photo.

The report said firefighters concluded they would not do much different next time (page 12):

Firefighters did an excellent job of planning, organizing and executing this prescribed fire and adhering to the prescribed fire plan. Following the control of the escaped fire some firefighters had difficulty thinking of anything they would do differently next time. While it is true that we work in a dangerous environment with unexpected changes in weather, we strive to be a learning culture and continuously improve our ability to make decisions that evaluate risk and get work done on the ground.

Some of the issues listed by the Facilitated Learning Analysis team included:

  • Improved weather forecasts are needed.
  • Consider additional research on methods to predict effects of drought on fire behavior in grass fuel models.
  • The nearest remote automated weather station (RAWS) is more than 90 miles away.
  • The project was conducted at the critical edge of the prescription.
  • Consider gaming out worst case scenario “what ifs” during the planning process, and discuss with participants during the on-site briefing.
  • There were problems with radio communications [note from Bill: I don’t remember EVER seeing a report like this that did not cite radio communications as being an issue].

The commendations section included this:

The personnel involved in all levels of the Pasture 3B prescribed fire were motivated, worked well as a team, were adequately trained, and appropriately briefed. They had a keen awareness that this was the first burn of the year, and took numerous precautions to ensure successful completion of the prescribed fire.

We did not see any mention in the report of damaged fences, hay, or pastures.

Some ranchers in western North Dakota donated hay to the South Dakota ranchers who lost theirs in the escaped prescribed fire.

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+

7 thoughts on “Weather cited as primary issue in escaped prescribed fire near Hettinger, ND”

  1. Pretty basic stuff here.

    Passage of cold front = strong winds, therefore, DO NOT IGNITE.

    Commendations said they were well trained and took precautions, etc but still dropped the match.

    BAD DECISION MAKING!!!

  2. “…forestry twin-tip nozzles are effective for conserving water but not for controlling wildfires…” um, every engine I ever served on had this thing called a brass compartment where a selection of nozzles were available. If the one on the end of the preconnect was not suitable, we utilized these things called threads to unscrew the current nozzle and install a more suitable one. Maybe it is time to not consider pickups with a skid-mount an “engine” and think of them as patrol and campfire control units only. Oh, and make sure your cooperating agencies have radios that can talk to each other…

  3. “One of the spot weather forecasts for the morning of the prescribed fire predicted the passage of the cold front, with winds shifting from the south at 5 to 11 mph in the morning, to northwest at 25 mph with gusts to 30 mph in the afternoon. The actual weather that day was very similar to the forecast.”

    Yet the FLA team says that improved weather forecasts are needed? Perhaps the burn boss should have made better use of the forecast that he/she had.

    1. There was inconsistency in the Wx forecasts. The forecast area prediction (Rapid City) had winds SW 8-16 shifting to NW 17-20 in the afternoon.

  4. Do you think that reports like these are part of the reason why a lot of taxpayers don’t have much confidence in fire agencies?

    “its not our fault”

    Hay, pasture, and fences are not a little oopsie.

  5. I could see why it has not made Lessons Learned…..yet. I would really reserve that call as an FLA. Fore the reasons of not paying attention to the weather.

    WOW! Are we all now supposed to somehow, by reading this FLA, that we are supposed to give these folks high fives for doing everything else right but looking at the weather and how it was progressing throughout the day?

    Hell, even TNC Crew Boss school coupled with a prescription for a burn 10 years ago, indicated by a test burn, a squirrelly wind event at 10 AM….we did not do the burn until 1030 PM that same night…..due to the WEATHER and winds.

    Being in the aviation industry for the last 30 years and watching the LMA’s evolving and claiming more aviation “prowess” in the field of forest and range management…….I would definitely say this would be a highly embarrassing NOT to be paying attention to the weather at all during these RX burns……absolutely an issue that if you do not mention anything about the WEATHER in the burn plan or PROVE your are paying attention to the weather at all phases of a burn….this does not deserve to be a FLA.

    Did not RX 310 teach anybody anything? From a pilots point of view, we make our mistakes, sometime written in blood. We have no known FLA’s other than our own ASRS reports for self reporting if we screw up…….

    Back a to AG Handbook 360 Fire Weather for these individuals….

    Did Laurie Casper’s family ever get a check for the 7100 acres in damages for this “properly planned and conducted burn?”

    That would be the PROPER FLA in this case……

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