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.

Two firefighters were injured while suppressing one of the 10 fires started by Mount Rushmore fireworks in 2000

The fire burned several acres and required a 20-person crew and a helicopter to suppress

map location fires Mount Rushmore fireworks
Map showing wildfires that were caused by fireworks over Mount Rushmore in 2000 and 2001. NPS map created by Bill Gabbert October 9, 2002.

Since we are 10 days away from a large fireworks show over the sculpture on Mount Rushmore National Memorial, we should look back at fires caused by previous fireworks shows at the Memorial.

I was the Fire Management Officer for Mount Rushmore and six other National Park Service sites during the first 4 of the 11 years when fireworks were used 1998 through 2009. They were cancelled in 2002, 2010, and 2011 because of the danger of fire, and have not been used since.

In going through my files from 20 years ago, I found Incident Action Plans and other records for that time period. The fireworks show was a massive undertaking that drew thousands of spectators to the memorial. In 1999 and 2000 the Operations Section had seven functional groups with numerous employees assigned to each:

  • Law Enforcement
  • Emergency Medical Services
  • Traffic/Parking
  • Fire
  • Aviation
  • Security/Crowd
  • Fireworks

In 2000 as the Group Supervisor for Fire and Aviation I had a total of 64 firefighters assigned. During those early years we used the helicopter that was on a fire contract at Yellowstone National Park to sling load the fireworks up to the launch site at the top of the mountain.  Here is an excerpt from the Division Assignment List (ICS-204) for Aviation that year:

JUNE 29:  The Helitack crew will report to MORU [Mount Rushmore National Memorial] at 0800 on June 29 to sort, weigh, and package the materials to be sling-loaded to the top of Mount Rushmore. The materials to be moved will include: fireworks and launch tubes 35,000 lbs., sand 16,000 lbs.  The objective for this day is to have the material ready to begin movement by helicopter at 0600 on the following day, June 30.

JUNE 30:  Arrive at MORU at 0500 on JUNE 30 so that actual helicopter movement of the sling loads will begin at 0600 (sunrise is at 0514 MDT). 

JULY 4:  Arrive at MORU at 0500 on JULY 4.  On this day, all the material that must be ferried from the top of Mount Rushmore to the Helibase will have to be sorted and packaged and then flown down.  The sand will remain on the top; only the  _______lbs. of equipment needs to be flown down.  The Helibase manager will determine the exact schedule for July 4 the day before, but an objective will be to complete the helicopter operations BEFORE the Memorial is busy with visitors.

We also used the helicopter to ferry bladder bags with water to the top of the mountain to be used to suppress fires started by the fireworks at night. There was no water source at the sculpture and a round trip up and down the steep, rocky slope to refill bladder bags took time.

Mount Rushmore, satellite photo
Mount Rushmore, satellite photo.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is not only rock, as we have heard from the President. The park is 1,400 acres, about 1,000 of which is Ponderosa Pine. Beyond that is the Black Hills National Forest.

Hot embers are, of course, created by the explosions of the fireworks. Most of them cool before landing on the ground. But not all. At Mount Rushmore  some of them fell on what firefighters call receptive fuels. A hot ember that lands on pine needles can start a forest fire.

During the fireworks show the scores of firefighters that were on hand had to remain out of what we called the Fallout Zone. After being launched hundreds of feet into the air a small percentage of the shells, which are larger than a softball, fail to explode and can cause serious injury if they fell on a firefighter. After the finale, the firefighters would move into their assigned areas to seek and suppress the fires. Picture the situation. It was dark, the terrain is very steep, and in many places rocky. Most of them carried five-gallon back pumps, water bladders, to put out the fires. The 45-pound back pumps were carried in addition to the regular firefighter gear which weighed more than 25 pounds. Among them, they had to cover an area about 3,000 feet in diameter in the dark, steep, rocky terrain. If more water was needed for the fires, it had to be carried up the steep slope.

Mount Rushmore looking down from the top
Mount Rushmore administrative site, looking down from the top of the sculpture. Photo by Bill Gabbert June, 2001.

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. My records show that in one two-year period, 2000 to 2001, 17 fires were started by the Mount Rushmore fireworks — 10 in 2000 and 7 in 2001. I don’t have fire occurrence records for the other nine years of fireworks shows. Several of the fires were more than 1,000 feet away from the launch site.  (See map at the top of the article, and note the 1,500′ radius [3,000′ diameter] circle centered on the launch site.)

A review of the 10 fires started by fireworks in 2000

On March 6, 2001 a meeting was convened to review the 10 fires started after the July 3, 2000 fireworks. In addition to myself, attendees included two representatives from Mount Rushmore National Memorial and two from the Park Service’s Regional office. Below is an excerpt from the memo written by the Acting Associate Regional Director, Park Operations and Education after the meeting:

“We reviewed the outcome of last year’s fireworks display where hundreds of burning embers hit the forest floor, resulting in seven reportable fires.  One of which grew to several acres requiring a 20-person hand crew and a type III helicopter with bucket to bring it under control.  One lost time injury and one injury that required first aid resulted from the suppression action.  We also reviewed the prescription criteria that was part of the go-no-go decision process for approving the fireworks last year.  We recommended, last year, that the fireworks would not be ignited if the probability of ignition was greater than 30 percent.  With seven reportable fires last year, the probability of ignition will need to be lowered under that prescription.

“We also reviewed Director’s Order (DO) 53 where it states, “No display will be conducted where the discharge, failure to fire, faulty firing, or fallout of any fireworks or other objects would endanger persons, buildings, structures, forest, or brush.”

“Our approval of the fireworks display at Mount Rushmore will require the following:

  1. “A waiver of the National Park Service policy found in DO-53 on displaying fireworks over a “forest or brush” area.
  2. A newly completed and approved fire management plan (FMP) and accompanying National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance.
  3. An annual fireworks operational plan that outlines the mitigation actions in the event of a wildland fire.

“Within the FMP, you can outline the annual fireworks project, describe the prescription criteria that would be part of the go-no-go checklist (probability of ignition less than 10 percent, reduction of the dead and down fuel loading, opening of the canopy closure within the fallout zone, type 1 hot shot crew for night suppression operations within the fallout zone, and safe zones identified and described to both the public and employees).  This project should be identified in the FMP and then hazard fuel dollars from FIREPRO could be applied for and be used to help do the fuel mitigation.” (emphasis added)

The next year, 2001, seven fires were caused by the fireworks.

Prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore

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

On April 29, 2020 the National Park Service conducted the first ever broadcast prescribed fire at Mount Rushmore. The objective, 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.

The exact cost for the 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.

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.

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 two other issues in addition to fires:

1. Carcinogens in the water
In 2016 the U.S. Geological Survey discovered that the ground and surface waters 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.

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.

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.