6 year anniversary: Pautre fire victims still not compensated

A fire started by lightening that got away from USFS firefighters burned 48,000 acres in western Nebraska in 2012. Ranchers were able to recoup expenses for posts and wire that was lost. Structures, including the garage on this ranch headquarters were lost as well. Photo by Maria Tussing

Six years have passed since the U.S. Forest Service started a fire that burned about 11,000 acres – around half of which was private land – in Perkins County, South Dakota.

The ranchers whose private land, fence, federal grazing land, trees, and more were burned in the fire, have not been reimbursed for any of the damages they claim are owed them as a result of the fire.

But a meeting with a mediation judge in Rapid City has been scheduled for mid-June, said rancher and claimant Laurie Casper.

Casper and her husband, who live 350 miles east, near Lake Preston, South Dakota, own 1,120 acres plus they rent land, neighboring the ranch she grew up on in Perkins County. Casper’s brother Ryan and father Bob manage the Casper land and cattle – about 280 head of cows – along with their own ranch in the same vicinity. All but 80 acres of the Casper land was burned in the Pautre fire. Much of the Hermann land was significantly burned as well. Fences, cropground, pasture, trees and more on both places. Although the family didn’t lose a large number of cattle in the fire itself, problems compiled after the blaze: due to smoke and ash inhalation, cows didn’t recognize the smell of their own calves, so the death loss was high, both immediately (from starvation) and later, from disease resulting from compromised immune systems. Because the Caspers were forced to move the cattle away from their regular (now burned) calving pasture and facility, cattle became mixed, and scours spread, leading to respiratory and other health problems that persisted. Smoke inhalation sickened cows and yearlings, causing deaths for months to come. The Caspers lost 11 cows that year and sold over 90 cows that were losing condition and were not likely to recover. They lost over 50 calves and suffered many other damages as a result of the fire, they say in their claim.

Casper is cautiously optimistic that the June mediation will be more productive than the family’s earlier efforts to obtain reimbursement for damages efforts thus far.

Another area rancher, Vince Gunn, also hopes the mediation hearing will conclude more than six years of battling the federal government for cost recovery on his burned fences and forage plus other pending charges.

“With our country’s legal system, you think you should be repaid for your losses but frankly it doesn’t happen that way,” he said. “All damage claims must utilize the government tort claim process, instead of a jury trial.”

For labor and material, a mile of new fence costs around $10,000 to $12,000, Gunn said. He has replaced corners and put in some new fence, but there is more that needs to be done.

Three different groups of ranchers filed suit following the fire, after the Federal Tort Claims Act process returned them no government compensation. One lawsuit group includes the Grand River Grazing Association, the group that represents ranchers who graze the U.S. Forest Service-administered land in the area.

Dan Anderson, Grand River Grazing Association President said that there are three different attorneys representing the different claimants, but each rancher or entity has filed separately. Anderson hopes for a positive outcome from the mediation, but he said that the government attorneys have filed for delays several times throughout the process, so he wouldn’t be surprised to see that happen again.

Originally, the total claims for about 14 ranchers, and the grazing association amounted to just over $50 million. The claims have now been amended to a fraction of that figure, said the Casper and Hermann family’s lawyer, Alan Saltman, although the current amounts are not publicly known.

“We’ll cover what damage there is,” Dennis Neitzke, Dakota Prairie Grasslands supervisor, was quoted in the April 4, 2013 Bismarck Tribune. “We got lucky. There were no homes burned.”

In 2015, the Department of Agriculture denied responsibility, saying “Our review of the claim discloses no liability on the part of the United States.”

“While we deeply regret the losses suffered by those affected by the Pautre Fire, a careful and thorough review of the claims disclosed no liability on the part of the U.S. Government. Although the weather reports in question proved ultimately to be inaccurate, the Forest Service relied on the best information available. Accordingly, by letters issued this week, USDA denied the claims,” Vilsack said in a letter to South Dakota’s Senator Thune.

“We are ready to put the fire behind us,” said Casper. “We don’t want it to define us.”