Estimated cost for prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore fireworks site was $30,000

The President said he would attend the event July 3 event

Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Visitors can almost see the sculpture at Mount Rushmore during the prescribed fire April 29, 2020. Photo by Paul Horsted.

President Trump said in an interview Friday that he intends to travel to South Dakota to see the fireworks as they explode over the Mount Rushmore sculpture July 3.

The 260-acre prescribed fire completed at the Memorial April 29 was planned at least in part to reduce the chances of fireworks igniting what would be the 21st wildfire started by the devices during Independence Day ceremonies over an 11-year span.

Below is an excerpt from an article at the New York Post:

Trump confirmed the visit during a radio interview Friday with conservative pundit and news aggregator Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent.

“I got fireworks. For 20 years or something it hasn’t been allowed for environmental reasons, you believe that one? It’s all stone,” Trump said. “I got it approved, so I’m going to go there on July 3 and they’re gonna have the big fireworks.”

On at least two occasions, May 7, 2019 and December 18, 2019, President Trump said fireworks were going to be shot over Mount Rushmore long before the Environmental Assessment process was finished.

The exact price tag for last week’s prescribed fire has not been tabulated, but Maureen McGee-Ballinger, the Memorial’s Chief of Interpretation and Education, told us the estimated expenditure was $30,000. It was conducted by a total of 54 personnel, including 24 firefighters from the National Park Service, 8 from the State of South Dakota, 6 from the State of North Dakota, 8 from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, 4 from the Department of Defense and 2 local volunteer fire department engines.

This was the first broadcast burn ever conducted at the Memorial. One of the objectives in the Incident Action Plan for the project was to “reduce the likelihood of unwanted ignitions in this area.”

Mount Rushmore prescribed fire April 30 2020
Mount Rushmore prescribed fire April 29, 2020. Photo by Matt Danilchick.
Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, April 29, 2020. Photo by Paul Horsted.

Forest Service reverses course on prescribed fires

Postponed on all forests in March, then allowed Region by Region in April

risk of prescribed fire during COVID-19 pandemic
The assessed risk of conducting prescribed fires based on COVID-19 pandemic conditions in mid-March, 2020. By the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service.

In mid-March the U.S. Forest Service cancelled or postponed all ignitions of prescribed fires in their Rocky Mountain Region (comprised of five states), the 13 states in the Southern Region, and California. Back then we reached out to the Forest Service’s Washington Office to ask, “Nationwide, have all prescribed fires been cancelled or postponed because of COVID-19?”  On March 23 the Lead Public Affairs Specialist for the FS in Washington, Kaari Carpenter, confirmed that they were:

Our mission-critical work, such as suppressing wildfires, and other public service responsibilities, will continue within appropriate risk management strategies, current guidance of the Centers for Disease Control, and local health and safety guidelines. All new ignitions for prescribed fire have been postponed until further notice.

After hearing that prescribed fires on Forest Service lands might be allowed again, we checked with Stanton Florea, who recently transferred from a public information position in the California regional office to a similar position for the Forest Service at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise that had been vacant. After a week, on April 30 we received what was described as “our response to your question”, which presumably came from or was approved by a government office in Washington.

The USDA Forest Service has not issued agency-wide direction to pause prescribed burning activities. Each region has been making their own decisions in terms of conducting prescribed burning activities.

Last week the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Region (California) included this announcement in a newsletter:

Forest Service prescribed fire announcement
USFS

In March, the Rocky Mountain Region compiled a thoughtful analysis of the risk of conducting prescribed fires, taking many factors into consideration. The chart at the top of the page was the risk at the time that led to the decision to postpone the projects in the region. Below is the assessment of the conditions they established that would be necessary to allow prescribed fires to be restored after the COVID-19 pandemic has improved.

risk of prescribed fire during COVID-19 pandemic
The assessed risk that would allow prescribed fires to be restored after COVID-19 conditions have improved. By the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service.

If the Forest Service is going to use the above analysis to justify reinstating prescribed fire ignitions, then they will have decided that:

  • The ability to mitigate the risk changed from Moderate to Easy;
  • Risk to the public changed from High/Moderate to Moderate;
  • Social/Political moved from High to Moderate, and
  • Risk to employees changed from High/Moderate to Moderate.

The experience of suppressing a small to moderate-sized wildfire in Arizona on April 17 proved that managing the fire, which included the extraction of a firefighter with a broken ankle, proved to be much more complex than before the COVID-19 pandemic. If the fire had been large and the injury life-threatening, the difficulties would have been even more problematic.

The Bureau of Land Management has been conducting prescribed fires for weeks at least, and on April 29 the National Park Service initiated the first ever broadcast prescribed fire in Mount Rushmore National Memorial in preparation for Donald Trump’s fireworks show on July 3.

Mount Rushmore prescribed fire April 30 2020
Mount Rushmore prescribed fire April 30, 2020. Photo by Matt Danilchick.

The New York Times reports that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection plans to burn roughly 3,200 acres over the next two months.

Below is an excerpt from their article, which addresses the effects of prescribed fire smoke during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Officials at CAL FIRE said they were taking steps to limit the health effects from their controlled burns, such as analyzing wind conditions to make sure smoke will not blow toward hospitals. Each burn, which can range in size from a few acres to several hundred, also requires advance approval from local air quality management boards, which in turn typically consult with local public health agencies.

Officials from several air quality boards and public health agencies downplayed the harm that controlled burns could inflict on those infected with Covid-19. “If they’re fighting for every breath, they’re in the hospital and not exposed to the smoky air,” said Lisa Almaguer, a spokeswoman for the Butte County public health department. “If they have moderate to severe symptoms then they’re home and in bed.”

Aerial photos of the prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore prescribed fire April 30 2020
Mount Rushmore prescribed fire April 29, 2020. Photo by Matt Danilchick.

Yesterday a pilot from Colorado was flying to Rapid City and grabbed some photos of the prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore.

“Just shot with my iPhone so sorry for the quality,” said Matt Danilchick.  “I didn’t expect to see it!”

Actually, the quality was very good, Matt. Thanks! They were taken at about 4:11 p.m. April 29, 2020. Judging from the photos and the time of day, the ignition was probably about 80 to 90 percent complete.

Mount Rushmore prescribed fire April 30 2020
Mount Rushmore prescribed fire April 29, 2020. Photo by Matt Danilchick.
Mount Rushmore prescribed fire April 30 2020
Mount Rushmore prescribed fire April 29, 2020. Photo by Matt Danilchick.

Prescribed can be an excellent method for restoring fire as a natural component of an ecosystem, and reducing hazardous fuels. As far as we can determine, this was the first ever broadcast prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. One worker at the prescribed fire told a photographer that it was conducted to prepare for the July 3 fireworks. On at least two occasions, May 7, 2019 and December 18, 2019, President Trump said fireworks were going to be restored at Mount Rushmore long before the Environmental Assessment process was finished.

Professional photographer Paul Horsted also shot photos of the prescribed fire, but from the ground.

Park Service conducts prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore

One firefighter said it was to prepare for the July 3 fireworks show

Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, April 29, 2020. Photo by Paul Horsted.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial conducted a prescribed fire Wednesday. The plan conceived weeks ago, according to what one of the firefighters told photographer Paul Horsted, was to burn 260 acres in preparation for exploding fireworks over the sculpture on July 3. Yesterday the National Park Service released the results of the Environmental Assessment which found there would be “no significant impact” from the fireworks that were announced by President Trump May 7, 2019.

In revealing the prescribed fire today the NPS said in a statement, “The burn objective is to reduce the build-up of dead fuels, in order to reduce the chance of higher severity fires.”

Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Visitors can almost see the sculpture at Mount Rushmore during a prescribed fire April 29, 2020. Photo by Paul Horsted.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial has successfully completed several fuel-reduction projects in the past to slow the growth of wildfires. These projects have primarily included mechanical thinning and pile burning, but no significant prescribed fires.

Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial
A firefighter monitors a prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, April 29, 2020. Photo by Paul Horsted.

Some of the negative aspects of exploding fireworks over the sculpture, as learned from the 11 times it has been done in the past, include three primary issues:

1. Wildfires
During those 11 events 20 documented wildfires were ignited by the fireworks in the middle of the wildfire season.

2. Carcinogens in the water
In 2016 the U.S. Geological Survey discovered that the ground and surface water at Mount Rushmore are contaminated with perchlorate, a carcinogen which is a component of rocket fuels, fireworks, and explosives. They determined that the chemical came from the fireworks over the 12-year period during which they were used.

3. Garbage
The trash dropped by the exploding shells onto the Monument and the forest can never be completely picked up. Left on the ground are unexploded shells, wadding, plastic, ash, pieces of the devices, and paper; stuff that can never be totally removed in the very steep, rocky, rugged terrain.

Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial
A visitor photographs a prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, April 29, 2020. Photo by Paul Horsted.
Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, April 29, 2020. Photo by Paul Horsted.

We thank photographer Paul Horsted for allowing us to use his photos. More of his shots including a time-lapse are at his Facebook page.

Researchers say thinning forests or prescribed fire before drought reduced tree loss

Treated areas had 15 percent less mortality

Whaley prescribed fire
A firefighter monitors the Whaley prescribed fire in the Black Hills National Forest, January 13, 2016. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

From the University of California – Davis

Thinning forests and conducting prescribed burns may help preserve trees in future droughts and bark beetle epidemics expected under climate change, suggests a study from the University of California, Davis.

The study, published in the journal Ecological Applications, found that thinning and prescribed fire treatments reduced the number of trees that died during the bark beetle epidemic and drought that killed more than 129 million trees across the Sierra Nevada between 2012-2016.

“By thinning forests, we can reduce water stress and make forests more resilient to drought and climate change,” said the study’s lead author, Christina Restaino, a postdoctoral scholar at UC Davis in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy when the study was conducted.

The study also indicated that current rates of treatment are not sufficient to reduce the impacts of hotter droughts and large-scale bark beetle outbreaks. Expanding the use of managed fire under moderate fire-weather conditions, along with strategic thinning and prescribed burn treatments, may increase resilience across the forest, the researchers said.

“There are currently too many straws in the cup,” said Restiano. “Denser forests use more water. We’re learning that fuel treatments used to reduce fire risk have multiple benefits. Forests that are more open and less dense are stronger in the face of insect outbreaks, too.”

TREATMENT HELPS

For the study, researchers collected plot data in 2017 at 10 pairs of treated and untreated sites stretching from Eldorado National Forest to Sierra National Forest in the central and southern Sierra Nevada. They compared the effects of pre-drought thinning and prescribed burn treatments at those sites for four major species: ponderosa pine, sugar pine, white fir and incense cedar.

Treated areas generally had lower stand densities, bigger tree diameters and more pines, which were historically dominant.

Ponderosa pine experienced the greatest mortality of the species studied (40 percent) during the drought and beetle outbreak. But its mortality was significantly lower in treated stands. In untreated areas, the chance any one tree would die was about 45 percent. In treated stands, that chance went down to 30 percent.

Both ponderosa and sugar pine trees died more in places where their diameters were larger, suggesting insects may prefer larger trees, especially when the trees are stressed. The study demonstrates that removing smaller trees through thinning and prescribed burns can help reduce the stress in larger trees, which restoration efforts prioritize.

BE PROACTIVE

“It’s important to be proactive,” said coauthor Derek Young, a postdoctoral researcher in the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences. “This is not the kind of thing to start only when the drought starts. It has to be done beforehand.”

The study also notes that forest managers in the Sierra Nevada might consider cultivating a broader variety of species to buffer against insects and disease, as well as shifting from pines to more resilient hardwood species, like oaks and madrone — a transition underway in other semi-arid and Mediterranean climates.

Funding was provided for the study by the USDA Forest Service Forest Health Protection program, the USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region, and the US Geological Survey Southwest Climate Science Center.


Ecological Applications, which published the study paid for by the US Forest Service and the USGS, is charging taxpayers $49 if they want a copy.

Report reveals actions taken after fatal helicopter crash on prescribed fire

One person was killed during aerial ignition operations in Texas March 27, 2019

Helicopter Flight Tracking Daniel Laird firefighter killed

A report has been released about the fatal helicopter crash that occurred on a prescribed fire in Texas, March 27, 2019. One of the passengers, Daniel Laird, was killed. The pilot and the other passenger were injured and transported to a hospital.

Tribute to Daniel Laird

Daniel, was born August 30, 1977 in Yuba City, California, the youngest of four siblings.

Daniel went to school at Grace Christian Academy, then on to Bridge Street School, and graduated from Yuba City High School in 1995. He joined the U.S. Forest Service after high school and worked his way up through the ranks to the position of Helitack Captain on the Tahoe National Forest. Daniel had served 23 years with the Forest Service.

Daniel was an avid fisherman, a staunch supporter of the Sacramento Kings, and a competitive golfer. He was also a Yuba City skateboarding icon. His greatest love and highest priority was always for his family.

Daniel’s complete obituary.

Daniel Laird memorial

Below are excerpts from the 33-page Facilitated Learning Analysis which goes into much more detail than seen here, and includes lessons learned. The excerpts are primarily from the viewpoint of Hailei who was in the front of the Airbus AS350B3 helicopter with Matthew, the pilot. Daniel Laird was in the back operating the Plastic Sphere Dispenser which dropped small spheres that ignite 30 to 45 seconds after being ejected from the machine. This was one of the methods used to ignite the prescribed fire that day, in addition to firefighters on the ground carrying hand-held devices.

It is common in reports like this to not use real names, but the document does not specify if they were changed.

The following events, from the time of the Mayday until the injured were transported to the hospital, occurred within a short amount of time, from 1409 to 1517. Those injured were actually receiving professional medical care on scene within 15 minutes of the Mayday. The excerpt begins at about 1408 just before finishing ignition on the prescribed fire.


Mayday – The On-Site Response

Hailei talked to Daniel and told him to get ready to turn off the Plastic Sphere Dispenser machine after they made the next turn. They were about to button the whole thing up. “We had one little piece we needed to do. We were 99.9 percent done. As soon as we made the turn, that’s when everything just stopped, and went silent,” Hailei recalls.

Hailei continues, “I looked at Matthew but I wish I would have looked back at Dan, too.” Matthew was fighting with the controls. She doesn’t remember doing it at the time, but Hailei asked Matthew, “What is happening?” He was busy with the controls. Hailei had the “push-to-talk” in her right hand. She keyed the mic and tried to say: “Kendall, we are going down.” But the only thing they heard on the radio was: “Kendall, we are going d . . .”

Hailei remembers hitting the tops of pine trees and then coming to. She later recalled, “I think I got knocked out. The last thing I remember, I was thinking of my daughter.”

Texas March 27, 2019 helicopter crash aerial ignitions
The March 27, 2019 incident in Texas. Photo by Sgt. Erik Burse/Texas Department of Public Safety.

Hailei said, “We [the helicopter] slid 50 feet down a live pine tree and rolled over onto our right side. I realized I was alive and then the pain hit. I undid my seatbelt and looked at [pilot] Matthew and saw a tree had come through between his leg and across his chest. I remember standing there and realized Matthew was alive because he was talking. He looked like he was hugging the pine tree. His head was laying on the PSD sphere bag. He said, ‘Help me move this bag.’ It seemed like forever to get the bag loose. As his seatbelt was unbuckled he fell out of the seat, but his foot was lodged. I had to crawl back in and twist his foot to get him loose.”

Hailei told Matthew: “We’ve got to go.”

She recalled seeing fire around them. She explained, “I wanted Matthew to get up but he couldn’t. I wanted him to get up so I could help him walk out. I wanted to get the fire shelters. I started thinking where the fire shelters were and started looking but couldn’t get to them.

Hailei continues, “I remember seeing Dan’s legs and thought ‘Please move your foot.’ But that never happened. I knew in my heart, he was gone. I thought about my training and remembered that fire extinguishers on board the aircraft are for people—not the aircraft. So I found the extinguisher and gave it to Matthew and said: ‘I have to go get help.’ The entire scene was very quiet for what had just happened.”

Hailei wanted her phone so she could call for help but couldn’t find it. Matthew was able to reach in the console and hand her his phone and she called FMO John. At that moment, John Kendall [Fire Management Officer on the Sam Houston National Forests] sees a Portland, Oregon phone number calling his phone. He remembered thinking that he didn’t recognize the number and he was trying to limit the time he was on the phone, but for some reason, he answered it.

It was Hailei on Matthew’s phone.

Hailei screamed for John to come get her. Hailei kept saying that she could not get the fire shelters from the helicopter. John told Hailei to move east away from the fire, but Hailei was unsure of where she was. Fire was spreading all around them. She told John, “We can’t get out of here.” Upon hearing this plural pronoun, John surmised that there must be at least two alive.

Right then, Hailei looked down and her phone was lying in the grass in front of her. She quickly hung-up with John and put the pilot’s cell phone in her pocket. She called her boyfriend with her phone and told him: “My helicopter crashed, I think one of my crew members is dead, please call my daughter. I don’t want her to find out about this on social media or the news.”

Hailei ends the call with her boyfriend, calls John back on her phone, and tells him that she could hear the UTV. He told her to hang up and call Robbie because he was closer to her.

She called [prescribed fire crewmember] Robbie from her cell phone. Robbie picked up the call. Hailei told him she heard the UTV drive past her. She told them to turn around, drive back, and pick her up.

Hailei remembers: “I thought I was going to have to walk through fire but a path opened up.” Robbie recalled seeing her through the fire. She was in an unburned pocket within the burn unit. Hailei recalls: “I got to Robbie who picked me up and carried me to the UTV where I had a meltdown. I then asked Robbie to stay with me.”

Prescribed Fire Crew Member, Brody, ran by. Hailei told him to hurry because fire was coming and she pointed toward the crashed helicopter. He headed that way and was first on scene at the helicopter. Then Jack, the firefighter who was serving as trail guard and weather observer, responded quickly. Robbie told him, “You need to grab a hand tool.” Jack grabbed a hand tool from the UTV and headed into the crash site following Brody’s path.

When Brody found the helicopter he saw pilot Matthew on his hands and knees under the ship. He recalled, “I asked if he was okay and he said ‘yes.’ I asked about Daniel, and the pilot didn’t know his condition. I ran around and looked and noticed the position of Daniel’s body and knew he was pinned. I knew the only way to help was to keep fire away. I helped the pilot up. I knew there was likely to be fuel everywhere, so I went out away from there and began to dig line.”

At about 1421, Jack met up with Brody at the helicopter as Brody was putting in a handline. Jack saw that Matthew was up and walking around. Jack asked Matthew if he could walk out. Matthew didn’t exactly answer his question, but explained that he didn’t have a fire shelter. Jack gave Matthew his fire shelter and said: “If we need to evacuate, I will open-up the fire shelter and we will leave together.”

Jack asked Matthew to “Show me the location of the PSD Operator so I can check him for signs of life.” Matthew pointed in the general direction and replied: “I don’t believe he made it.” He also informed,

“You can’t get to him.” Jack walked in that direction and quickly determined that, because of the helicopter’s position, he couldn’t get to Daniel.

Jack started helping Brody finish the handline and they started lighting a backfire with lighters. Jack was working on the fireline while having an ongoing conversation with Matthew.

Robbie started driving—very carefully—Hailei out on the UTV. She asked, “Where are we going? Robbie replied, “I want to get you a little better help.” She said, “Well, you can go a little faster.”

It took them about 10 minutes to get to the ambulance. While on the UTV, Robbie gently told Hailei that once he got her to the ambulance he would need to go back to help at the crash site. However, at 1426,  once they made it out to the ambulance, FMO John told Robbie to stay with Hailei because there were enough people at the scene and he wanted Hailei to know that she was supported.

Robbie gave Hailei a few minutes to calm down. Hailei called her supervisor, Toby, the Helicopter Program Manager, at 1430. He didn’t know the crash had happened and answered in a calm laidback voice, “What’s going on?” Hailei explained that the helicopter went down. She reported that she was fine and Matthew was fine but that she wasn’t sure about Daniel. She then handed the phone to Robbie. Toby asked Robbie about Daniel. Robbie informed that Daniel was still unconscious. Toby cancelled the scheduled post-burn recon for the Davy Crockett burn, had a conversation with his pilot, and both agreed to fly back to the Angelina airport. Toby then began to make his way to the hospital in Conroe.

At around 1507, Sam called Dispatch to say Hailei was in route to the hospital. Hailei recalls that Robbie rode in the front of the ambulance and it made her feel better to know that he was going with her. She also recalls that the Medic in the back of the ambulance also made her feel calm. She said, “I was mad because they cut my favorite pair of Nomex off me. I told them not to cut off my boots but to unlace them and tuck my socks in them! After all I went through, my concern at the time was that I didn’t want to get stuck by a needle. The Medic said, ‘You won’t even know’—and I didn’t. I was so impressed.”

While on the way to the hospital, the Medic was answering Hailei’s phone calls and responding to texts for her. One of these phone calls was from Hailei’s dad. The Medic was able to reassure and calm him about Hailei’s condition.

Honoring Daniel with the Utmost Respect and Dignity

The Montgomery Fire Department stabilized the helicopter with lifts that they had carried in. Based on their experiences, they had packed in quite a bit of stabilizing equipment. But because of the position of the helicopter, they only needed a few pieces of equipment to secure it.

While waiting for the Justice of the Peace to arrive, they decided that they would not remove Daniel until they were able to honor him with the utmost respect and dignity. A member of the Montgomery Fire Department requested an American flag be brought to the scene. At 1622, the Justice of the Peace confirmed that Daniel had expired.

Bob, the Angelina/Sabine Assistant Fire Management Officer (AFMO), recalls pulling up to the scene when everyone was waiting for Daniel to be brought out. He said, “We got in line and Daniel was brought out wrapped in an American flag. It was something to see.”

Surprisingly, Hailei was released within three hours of arriving at the hospital. Evan continued to stay with Matthew until James arrived late that night.

Conclusions

4 Crashes
16 Years
8 Lives Lost

The helicopter crash on March 27 that claimed Daniel Laird’s life has opened up old wounds from previous helicopter crashes, including: the 2003 space shuttle support crash (two fatalities, Charles Krenek and Buzz Miller); the 2005 Sabine National Forest crash (three fatalities, Jon Greeno, Charles Edger, and Jack Gonzalez); and the 2015 De Soto National Forest crash (two fatalities, Steve Cobb and Brandon Ricks).

There have also been numerous helicopter near-misses that have left a lasting impression on those involved. Some qualified personnel on the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas no longer want to be included in helicopter operations. These realizations have left employees asking large-scale questions about the nature of their work.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Cory. Typos or errors, report them HERE.