Will the danger of wildfires prevent or postpone the July 3 Mount Rushmore fireworks?

The National Park Service will not disclose their criteria for cancellation due to fire danger

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Thomas Jefferson on Mount Rushmore
Thomas Jefferson on Mount Rushmore.

There is a chance that the wildfire danger on July 3 could cause the fireworks planned over Mount Rushmore National Memorial to be cancelled or postponed. But the National Park Service has refused to disclose how they will make their decision.

President Trump and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem have been advocating for fireworks over the sculpture since 2018. Fireworks were shot at the Memorial 11 times between 1998 and 2009, but were cancelled due to wildfire danger in 2002, 2010, and 2011 and have not been used since.

The President has said, referring to the fireworks,”what can burn? It’s stone.” The sculpture of course is stone, but it is on steep, rugged terrain surrounded by very flammable ponderosa pine trees adjacent to the Black Hills National Forest.

I was the Fire Management Officer for Mount Rushmore and six other National Park Service (NPS) sites from 1998 to 2003 during the first 4 of the 11 years when fireworks were used 1998 through 2009. My job during the events was to organize for and suppress the wildfires using the scores of firefighters we deployed on site.

The Environmental Assessment completed by the National Park Service earlier this year that addressed resuming the fireworks stated that during the 11 years fireworks were used, 20 fires were caused by the fireworks. The Washington Post uncovered a 2017 document in which the National Park Service noted that “a minimum of 27” wildfires were started by the fireworks shows.

My records show that in one two-year period, 2000 to 2001, 17 fires were started  — 10 in 2000 and 7 in 2001. I don’t have fire occurrence records for the other nine years of fireworks were used.

In 2000 one of the fires burned through the night, grew to several acres, and required a 20-person crew and a helicopter to bring it under control the following day. There were two injuries; one person had to take time off from work to recover.

Several of the fires were more than 1,000 feet away from the launch site, far beyond the stone referenced by the President.

During the early years of the events I helped develop a Go/No-Go checklist of criteria that had to be acceptable to allow the show to occur. It included items such as obtaining a Spot Weather Forecast from the National Weather Service, wind speed, qualifications of firefighting personnel, and the Probability of Ignition (PI). The PI is the chance that a burning ember or firebrand will cause an ignition when it lands on receptive fuels. The beautiful fiery streaks you see after every explosion of fireworks contain hot embers, some of which after landing on the ground can start a fire.

I still have in my files a letter the NPS Midwest Regional Office sent to the staff at Mount Rushmore after the 17 fires in 2000 and the one that burned into the next day. It directed that in the future the maximum allowable PI be “less than 10 percent.”

I asked the NPS for a copy of the current Go/No-Go checklist and specifically the requirement this year for the PI. My questions were redirected to Erin Hilligoss-Volkmann, the Information Officer on the Incident Management Team that has been assigned to Mount Rushmore to help manage the event. She replied:

The Go/No Go checklist is not publicly available at this time due to security and safety concerns.

Fire condition criteria, such as: the fire preparedness level; burning index; fuels and moisture conditions; wind and weather conditions are part of the assessment. Detailed information about specific trigger points will not be released due to security and safety concerns.

Some current and former NPS employees have concerns about the fireworks.

“I am appalled that fireworks are scheduled for Mt Rushmore, especially considering the high danger of wildfire,” said Valerie Naylor, a retired NPS Superintendent who lives near the memorial. “We determined a decade ago that the wildfire risk, fireworks debris, environmental contamination, and damage to the sculpture were unacceptable. The memorial’s own planning documents reflect that. Now there is the added risk and complexity of operating in a dangerous pandemic.  Conducting an event like this is unnecessary and irresponsible and puts park staff and the public at high risk.”

My Opinion

Refusing to disclose the criteria that will determine if it is safe to explode fireworks over a ponderosa pine forest could lead a person to conclude that the National Park Service officials in South Dakota and Washington think they have something to hide. Is it actually a major security issue, or do they just want to conceal facts that could be politically embarrassing? The probability of ignition is not a political issue, it is science. A PI higher than 10 percent could put the public and the natural resources at risk.

The National Park Service needs to put on their big boy pants and be transparent about the fireworks.

The South Dakota Governor’s office should not be overlooked either. In the days leading up to the fireworks a wildfire broke out on state land six miles from Mount Rushmore. For years South Dakota state Incident Commanders and local public information personnel have been the primary distributors of information about developing fires being fought by state personnel. But they were gagged in this case, and the Governor’s office was the only official information source available, presumably because Governor Noem feared the occurrence of a fire near Mount Rushmore could affect the public perception of the wisdom of exploding fireworks over a forest 10 days later into the wildfire season. Even former Governor Bill Janklow, who was very, very hands on when fires were burning, did not attempt to control information about ongoing fires.

Mount Rushmore
Jill and Mike Ferguson at Mount Rushmore.

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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.

30 thoughts on “Will the danger of wildfires prevent or postpone the July 3 Mount Rushmore fireworks?”

  1. Thanks for posting your article, Bill. I very much appreciate your perspective on this. Sadly, it would appear that there are others that don’t. There is no reasonable reason to withhold the checklist from the public. I can only come up with political reasons and that’s not good land management.

  2. Yeah. So, it’s happening as it happened many times in the past. I helped kill it ten years ago because of compounding complications from many directions including bugs and drying trends. I wrote the wildfire analysis as part of the EA for this event. The Park Service and the State can handle it. I realize there is cause for concern and those concerns were addressed, agree or not, in the EA. The decision is to move forward with a permit to the State to do fireworks. In the current political environment, transparency serves the fake media because they have lost any notion of fairly reporting what is shared transparently. So, if all the details are released and the mainstream media hacks only report one discrete piece of information or perspective, they are neither informing nor involving the public, but only trying to spin the event. I get it why the Governor is holding her hand close to her chest. We’ll see how it goes and look forward to an expanded event next year.

  3. If the weather meets the go -no criteria let’s have the fireworks .A lot of the “excuses “above are non -sensical ! Next the radicals will want to blow up the monument !!
    Do as Bill noted and have some crews on the ground, to extinguish any burning embers !!

  4. I wonder what level of fuel removal beneath the forested canopies has been done surrounding the Monument?
    Does the NPS even think of such pre-conditioning treatments to minimize and or prevent ember-ignited fires?
    Do they preposition fire personnel “out in the woods” for such spot fires. The USFS does this kind of pre-positioning with almost all back fire operations. It’s routine for then, but I do not know if such is the case with the NPS; if not, why not?
    Having been a Forest Supervisor for over 15 years, this would be a “routine preparedness drill” that could easily be established for such an important National event like the 4th of July Celebration. Let’s not get hung up with the scarey threats from a former NPS Superintendent who likely had no fire experience at all, or knowledge of how to deal with an even like this to minimize any threats.

  5. Bill,

    I looked at Great Plains website today. I didn’t see any additional resources on forest from other areas of the country. Do you have any additional info on if there are additional prepositioned resources? Thanks

  6. For me, there are two primary issues:

    1. Risk of fire.
    2. Risk to health.

    If there is a fireworks display and a gathering, please everyone wear a mask. We have too much information that indicates masks are helpful. So, wear one. My wish: postpone the event.

    These are trying times, indeed. But why risk the health of the land and the health of people needlessly? I know, it’s a political event and I am being naive. I get that. But for the good of all, maybe we could use some common sense for just a bit. We are in this for the long haul. Why not act like it?

  7. Not condoning government officials decision, but the Rx burn a few weeks ago will help mitigate concern. I understand there are many acres outside the burn area that are susceptible, but the immediate area should be good.

  8. There is a simple solution to having fireworks in our National Parks and National Forrest. “You just don’t do it.” Why take that chance of producing a fire ?
    Why not just celebrate with something like Lazer Lights show instead ??

  9. Risky business I say. A lot of industrial grade fire works are set off over a receptive fuel bed to satisfy the ego of a couple of politicians. Lots of trash produced, unexploded ordnance littering the land, harmful chemicals released, fire fighters and other staff lives and health put at risk, large crowds present and all the problems that go with them. Then the significant risk of COVID-19 added in. I do not foresee a lot of social distancing going on. Then the cost to the agency. This senseless dog and pony show will go on regardless, because of the agencies clueless, managers who’s only goal is to support the administration and not protect the resources, visitors and staff.

  10. Thanks Rick.

    Unfortunately I was misquoted in the NPR article.

    Here’s what David Welna, the reporter, wrote:

    “Gabbert questions the utility of [the prescribed fire at Rushmore]. Conducting that prescribed fire won’t reduce the amount of flammable material — the vegetation that is on the ground,” the veteran fire ranger says. “It cannot prevent any fire from starting.”

    I told Mr. Welna prescribed fire WILL reduce the amount of flammable material, but it can’t prevent all fires from starting.

    Here is what I wrote in a June 23 article on Wildfire Today:

    “…A prescribed fire will reduce the amount of fuel available for a wildfire started by fireworks or any other ignition source, but it can’t totally prevent an ignition. However, any resulting fire would burn with less intensity and resistance to control.”

  11. Not to worry! I’m sure the forest surrounding the stone monument is safe for having been thoroughly raked, as was suggested by our wildfire expert in the White House when he visited California in the wake of the Camp fire.

  12. Good article Bill. Amazing that you reached out for basic fire behavior safety information and was denied due to “security” reasons. And if a fire starts, will that information be suppressed as well? How often do we hold back “safety” information”? Although I suspect its related to the President.

    It is quite astonishing that not only with COVID on the rise in many states that this administration would risk not only the safety of all the NPS personnel but the public as well. Based on your experience as the FMO at the Park and with current conditions and past history its a shame that NPS personnel and other fire personnel are put in this position. Of course if a fire starts what about the impacts to the environment? I have no doubt the team assigned to this event has done their best to plan, oversee and run this event and I am sure they have attempted to mitigate all risks and hazards as best they can. I am not sure if politics can ever be mitigated though.

    As a past ICT1, FMO,District Ranger and interim Park Superintendent, I am concerned this is being allowed to occur and it troubles me that on some of the planning of this event in not passing the basics of a Go/No Go from the beginning and is being driven by politics, not science or safety. I get how management must have to deal with these decisions and pressures. I guess we will see how it all plays out.

  13. After going to this site I would have to say not a great place for a wildfire. Then again if the “floor of the forest” was just swept the risk would be nil. Keep Politics out of Wildfire Management and just let the pros just do their job instead of listening to a pretend “expert’s opinion”. Nature gives us more than enough ignition why deliberately add to the problem?

  14. All this is true. Love Trump’s comment about what could burn. Obviously he’s never been there!

  15. The WFAS map appears to look favorable for most of the area right around the monument though it’s unfavorable in the broader region. Which means it’s probably a go, given the chuckleheads in-charge.

    Of course that doesn’t do a damn thing for the whole pandemic, pollution, litter, appropriateness of using a national monument for political purposes, etc.

    Real patriotism today would be staying home and trying to keep from killing your fellow Americans. Not putting on a show to try and please your fan club while polluting the woods and disturbing the wildlife.

  16. Yes, our Oval Office reality show host, stable genius, fire expert has given the go ahead. What could possibly go wrong?

  17. Great Plains’ website indicates 3 SEATs, 1 LAT, 1 type 1 helo, 1 type 3 helo, 1 air attack, and one smoke jumper aircraft (along with 8 jumpers and 2 spotters) are available in the hills.

  18. We visited Mt. Rushmore in (I think) 2005. While there, a fire broke out somewhere nearby. We barely made it out of the area before the primary road was closed. The only available detour was a long way out of the way for a lot of people. It seems to me that deliberately creating a high fire danger, combined with a mountainous two lane road and a large crowd for the event is not particularly wise.

  19. Keeping the go/no go criteria secret is a bit bizarre. The only reason I can think of to keep it under wraps is so they don’t have to follow it if they don’t want to.

    Who, me? No, I’m not cynical.

  20. That was a well executed event, and an excellent speech befitting this national memorial and all it stands for.

  21. Looks like the “”Experts ” were all wrong . The Pyrotechnologists are smarter than you think ,GOOD JOB!! The speech was excellent.!!

  22. Chuck, I don’t know of anyone who questioned the skill of the company that was given a noncompetitive contract to launch the fireworks. The concern was disregarding the lessons learned during the 11 years fireworks were used previously in the Memorial, including these issues:

    –Putting even more carcinogens in the water. There is now 270 times more perchlorate in the water at Mount Rushmore than in the surrounding area. The USGS determined that it likely came from fireworks. The Centers for Disease Control says high levels of perchlorate can affect the thyroid gland, which in turn can alter the function of many organs in the body. The fetus and young children can be especially susceptible.
    –The trash that can never be completely picked up. Left on the sculpture and in the forest are unexploded shells, wadding, ash, pieces of the devices, and paper; stuff that can never be totally removed in the very steep, rocky, rugged terrain.
    –The possibility of more wildfires added to the list of 27 from previous years.

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