Two fires erupt in South Dakota and Nebraska

North of Hot Springs, SD and south of Chadron, NE

Black Hills Fires August 28, 2020
Map showing the locations of fires in Nebraska and South Dakota, August 28, 2020.

On Friday firefighters were attacking two new fires in South Dakota and Nebraska.

The Aristocrat Fire is in northwest Nebraska near Chadron three miles southeast of the intersection of highways 385 and 20. Spokesperson for the U.S. Forest Service Tom Buskirk said at 6:30 p.m. MDT Friday it had burned approximately 200 acres and the spread had been mostly stopped. A variety of federal, state, and local fire agencies are working on the blaze. Mr. Buskirk said a large air tanker and a single engine air tanker had assisted firefighters in the afternoon.

At Wildfire Today we noted that Friday at 2:18 a.m. MDT a satellite detected heat in the area of the Aristocrat Fire.

The Rankin Fire in southwest South Dakota is north of Hot Springs in Wind Cave National Park two miles north of the intersection of highways 87 and 385. The lightning-caused fire is east of highway 87 and 1.5 miles south of Rankin Ridge lookout tower. At 6:30 p.m. MDT Friday the 20-acre fire was burning in an area that has been treated with prescribed fires. It is being attacked by engine crews, a  Type 2 hand crew from Oregon, and a wildland fire module from New Jersey. Three single engine air tankers and a Type 3 helicopter are also assisting firefighters.

Rain followed the fireworks at Mount Rushmore

Almost one-fifth inch fell shortly after the fireworks ended

George Washington profile on Mount Rushmore
George Washington’s profile on Mount Rushmore

Rain fell shortly after the July 3 fireworks show at Mount Rushmore. The official Remote Area Weather Station at the Memorial recorded 0.17 inch between 10 p.m. and 12 p.m MDT. In less than an hour the relative humidity went from 44% to 86%. The rain was followed 24 hours later with another 0.03 inch at 11 p.m. MDT July 4.

“We had crews monitoring on the mountain last night and they are still working today,” a spokesperson for the Incident Management Team mobilized for the event, Erin Hilligoss-Volkmann, said Saturday afternoon July 4. “There have been no reports of fires as of yet. We are continuing to monitor and will have more information soon. As you’re likely aware, there was a pretty significant rain event following the fireworks event.”

If any fires were started by burning embers from the explosions they likely would have grown very slowly in the sparse fuels remaining two months after the Memorial was treated with a prescribed fire. The rain falling within minutes after the program ended accompanied by very high humidity would have made it difficult for a new fire to grow or avoid extinction.

In addition to the 27 fires started at Mount Rushmore by previous uses of fireworks from 1998 to 2009, many of those concerned about the environment have additional concerns:

  • Putting even more carcinogens in the water. Studies from 2011 to 2015 by the USGS found 270 times more perchlorate in the water at Mount Rushmore than in the surrounding area and 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 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.
Mount Rushmore Fireworks garbage
Several months after the fireworks in 2007 Paul Horsted photographed garbage near the Mount Rushmore sculpture that was created by the exploding shells.

Fire behavior analyst calculates the probability of embers from Mount Rushmore fireworks igniting wildfires

Fireworks are scheduled for Mount Rushmore after 9 p.m. MDT July 3.

mount rushmore fireworks
File photo showing Mount Rushmore fireworks with burning embers hitting the ground. Photo: South Dakota Tourism

With a large fireworks show slated to be carried out this evening over the Mount Rushmore sculpture and the surrounding pine forest, I solicited a fire expert, a Fire Behavior Analyst, to develop a forecast to predict the danger presented by the burning embers that fall to the ground.

One of the primary reasons the fireworks at Mount Rushmore have not been displayed since 2009 is that during the 11 years they were used, between 20 and 27 fires were ignited. In 2000 one of the fires that started that night burned into the next day, grew to several acres, and required a 20-person crew and a helicopter to bring it under control. There were two injuries; one person had to take time off from work to recover.

During the early years of the events as the National Park Service Fire Management Officer for Mount Rushmore, I helped develop a Go/No-Go checklist of criteria that had to be acceptable to allow the shows 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 or PIG). The PIG 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. It directed that in the future the maximum allowable PI be reduced from 30 percent to “less than 10 percent.”

The NPS will not release this year’s Go/No-Go checklist or confirm if the PIG will be a evaluated, citing “security and safety concerns.”

Mike Beasely, a former wildland firefighter with the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, is a trained and qualified Fire Behavior analyst. He is able to predict the spread of fires and is skilled in the science that influences how a fire burns.

Mike studied the weather conditions in the Mount Rushmore area and the weather recorded at a fire weather station at Mount Rushmore. Using algorithms and computer models, he predicts that if the fireworks begin at 9:15 to 9:30 as scheduled tonight, at that time the PIG will be 50 percent. In other words, about half the still burning embers created by the fireworks that hit the ground could ignite vegetation. Mike said that after 9:30 the PIG will drop throughout the night and would likely be 10 percent by 4 a.m. MDT on July 4.

One of the important factors to consider is the first ever broadcast prescribed fire that the NPS conducted at Mount Rushmore on April 29. The project reduced the amount of burnable vegetation on the forest floor, which decreased the amount of “receptive fuels” that could ignite if contacted by a burning ember. But depending on how deep the organic layer was before the prescribed fire, its moisture content, the residence time of the fire, needle cast in the last two months from the pine trees, and the fire’s intensity, it could be possible for fires to be ignited from the falling embers from the fireworks. If the burning embers fall in the footprint of the prescribed fire and ignite the remaining fuel, the resulting fire would likely burn slowly and at low intensity. In 2000 fires were ignited 1,200 to 1,300 feet north of the fireworks launch site.

Another caveat addressed by Mike: if prior to the fireworks a wetting rain occurs on Friday afternoon or evening, the one-hour time-lag fuel moisture resets to 30 percent and the fuel drying algorithm starts over, effectively making the PIG zero percent.

Below are excerpts from Mike’s eight-page analysis. You can download the entire document HERE.


Assumptions

  1. Uses weather record from Mt. Rushmore Remote Automated Weather Station (RAWS) #392603
  2. Uses day time fuel moisture reference tables (Appendix B), rather than night time tables (Appendix A), per NWCG guidance, despite fireworks being slated for 9:15-9:30 MDT
  3. Rain Caveat: If at any point prior to the fireworks, a wetting rain occurs, the 1-hr. TLFM resets to 30% and the fuel drying algorithm starts over, effectively making your PIG 0% (see Appendix D)

Climatology

The Black Hills and specifically the area around Mt. Rushmore are experiencing an above average fire danger as shown in the following ERC charts for the northern and southern Black Hills.  While, well below historic maxima, this is consistent with the Moderate Fire Danger rating for the peak of the burning period forecasted for July 3rd.  Wildfire Today has reported on the Moderate Drought level for the region as assessed by the Drought Monitor.

Energy Release Component Black Hills North
Mount Rushmore, ERC BH South
Energy Release Component, Black Hills South

Inputs

The only two inputs for PIG are air temperature and 1-hr. time lag fuel moisture (TLFM).  Both are highly variable with the daily diurnal cycle.  The Mt. Rushmore RAWS data input daily has yielded the following fuel moistures predicted for mid-afternoon tomorrow immediately before the firework display.  While not inputs for the PIG they are given as a general reference.

  • 10-hr TLFM: 8%
  • 100-hr TLFM: 9%
  • 1000-hr TLFM: 12%

Recent Precipitation:  The Mt. Rushmore  RAWS received nearly eight tenths of an inch between June 28th and July 1st. That rain aided in the control of a nearby fire in Custer State Park, but there has been no subsequent precipitation.

Mount Rushmore, past precip
Precipitation at Mount Rushmore, June 29-July 3, 2020.

There was precipitation around the Black Hills over the 24-hour period that ended at 10 a.m. MDT July 3, but it missed Mt. Rushmore.  The NWS estimate below shows, over the past 24 hours scattered sites near Mt. Rushmore may have received as much as another half to three-quarter inches, but the gap shows over the Monument.

Below are the estimated temperature and relative humidity during the fireworks.  Since we don’t have a site-specific weather forecast, we will use the more generalized NWS fire weather forecast and look at persistence over the past two dry evenings, understanding that the region is moving into a hotter, drier period.

Mount Rushmore, temperature fireworks
Temperature, Mount Rushmore, July 1-3, actual and predicted. The red arrows indicate approximately 9:15 p.m. MDT, the time the fireworks are scheduled to launch on July 3, 2020.
Past and predicted relative humidity, Mount Rushmore
Past and predicted relative humidity, Mount Rushmore, July 1-3. The red arrows indicate approximately 9:15 p.m. MDT, the time the fireworks are scheduled to launch on July 3, 2020.

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

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.

Mine Draw Fire being fought 6 miles south of Mount Rushmore

In the Black Hills of South Dakota

(UPDATED at 3:36 p.m. MDT June 25, 2020)

Jim Strain who took this photo from the Fairburn, SD area, said it looked like this storm cell was over the Mine Draw Fire. Posted by Jim at 1:04 p.m. MDT June 25, 2020.

Custer State Park announced that as of 2 p.m. today the Mine Draw Fire is 100 percent contained. We are waiting to hear if the Governor has declared it officially contained.

That was around the time that a very large thunderstorm cell was centered over the fire. As of 3:18 p.m. 0.25″ of rain had been measured at the Custer State Park airport.

Mine Draw Fire rain
Radar shows rain over the Mine Draw Fire. Posted by Galen Hoogestraat at 1:32 p.m. MDT June 25, 2020.

(UPDATED at 12:14 p.m. MDT June 25, 2020)

The only official information available today about the Mine Draw Fire was issued by the South Dakota Governor’s office. The update said the  fire has burned 60 acres, which is a decrease from the Wednesday afternoon estimate of 150 acres.

The fire was reported at 11:19 a.m. June 24 in Custer State Park six miles south of Mount Rushmore.

The statement from the Governor’s office said that in addition to the hand crews and fire engines, there are two Type 1 helicopters and one air attack plane on scene for a total of 117 personnel. Yesterday three Type 1 Hotshot crews were at the fire or en route.

A resident near the fire said that last night the wind in the fire area was calm and there was not much smoke. Another person who was farther way could clearly see the smoke column yesterday but early this morning none was visible.

The weather station at the Custer State Park airport recorded a maximum relative humidity overnight of 70 percent. At 11:18 a.m. MDT today it had dropped to 39 percent, the temperature was 83, and the wind was 12 mph out of the northeast gusting up to 21 mph. The forecast for the fire area at 5 p.m. calls for the temperature going down to 73, humidity 54 percent, and increasing cloud cover with showers and thunderstorms likely.

With the overnight conditions, the forecast, and the resources on hand, the firefighters could have a good chance of stopping the spread of the 60-acre fire today.


(UPDATED at 8:15 p.m. MDT June 24, 2020)

Two additional hotshot crews are en route to the Mine Draw Fire east of Custer, South Dakota — the Roosevelt Hotshots from Colorado and the Wyoming Hotshots.

The fire is half a mile north of the Legion Lake Fire that burned 54,000 acres in December, 2017.

The South Dakota Governor’s senior advisor and policy director, Maggie Seidel, said at 8:15 p.m. MDT Wednesday that the fire has burned 150 acres.

The customary system for distributing information about wildfires in the Black Hills is with local agency information officers coordinated through the Great Plains Interagency Dispatch Center. But for this fire, information is being controlled by Governor Kristi Noem’s office.


(Originally published at 5:37 p.m. MDT June 24, 2020)

Mine Draw Fire
Mine Draw Fire, June 24, 2020. Photo by Custer State Park.

Firefighters in the Black Hills are attacking a fire that was discovered at 11:19 Wednesday morning in Custer State Park six miles south of Mount Rushmore.

The Mine Draw Fire had grown to 150 acres by 4:30 p.m. and was being attacked by firefighters on the ground and in the air north of Highway 16A and east of Highway 87. The blaze is west of the Custer State Park maintenance shop on the north side of 87 and seven miles east of Custer.

Mine Draw Fire map
Map showing the location of the Mine Draw Fire June 24, 2020.

Scott Jacobson, a spokesperson for the Great Plains Interagency Dispatch Center said firefighting resources working on the fire included fire engines from several agencies, dozers, and the Tatanka Hotshots.

A variety of firefighting aircraft were seen over the fire Wednesday afternoon:

  • Two large air tankers: T-02, a BAe-146; and T-162, an RJ85; they were dispatched from Pueblo, CO and Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport near Denver, respectively.
  • Three Single Engine Air tankers, all Air Tractor 802s;
  • Two helicopters, a Sikorsky S-61A and an Airbus AS50;
  • Plus a lead plane and air attack.

The air tankers were refilling with retardant the Rapid City Air Tanker Base at the Regional Airport.

Mine Draw Fire aircraft
Aircraft over the Mine Draw Fire at 4:39 p.m. MDT June 24, 2020.

The Black Hills are in a moderate drought, and the weather Wednesday has been on the high side of moderate from a firefighters’ point of view. Since the fire started, the weather station not far away at the Custer State Park airport has recorded temperatures in the mid 80s, relative humidity around 30 percent, and winds out of the east or northeast at 4 to 8 mph gusting at 12 to 16 mph.

EPA declines to regulate toxic chemical left at Mount Rushmore after 11 years of fireworks

Perchlorate, which is now in the water at the park after fireworks shows, has been linked to fetal and infant brain damage

Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The National Park Service is planning to conduct another fireworks show at Mount Rushmore National Memorial on July 3, 2020.

One of the reasons for prohibiting massive fireworks displays over the faces of the four presidents on Mount Rushmore National Memorial is that the previous 11 fireworks shows between 1998 and 2009 contaminated the water at the memorial. The fireworks explosions left perchlorate on the ground which has been linked to fetal and infant brain damage, and it worked its way into the water table. In 2016 a  USGS report showed that a maximum perchlorate concentration of 54 micrograms per liter was measured in stream samples at Mount Rushmore between 2011 and 2015. That was about 270 times higher than in samples collected from sites outside the memorial, which were 0.2 micrograms per liter.

In recent months the Environmental Protection Agency was considering  establishing a limit on perchlorate of 56 micrograms per liter, almost 4 times higher than the limit of 15 proposed by the administration in 2009, but it was never implemented. If adopted, the new limit would have been a policy statement by the administration that the extremely high perchlorate levels caused by the fireworks were acceptable, but just barely — by 2 micrograms per liter.

But the EPA announced June 18, 16 days before the scheduled July 3, 2020 fireworks show, that they will not regulate perchlorate, period. This makes it easier for the Governor of South Dakota and the President, who both pushed to resume the fireworks shows, to feel they have eliminated one of the barriers to continuing the explosions over the four faces.

The negative aspects of exploding fireworks over the sculpture, as learned from the 11 times it has been done in the past, include two other issues in addition to carcinogens in the water:

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

2. 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.