Are Wildfires Becoming Big Business? | TSLN.com

Are Wildfires Becoming Big Business?

Photo by Whitney Klasna.

States and the federal government invest millions each year into containing and suppressing massive wildfires. But that investment in wildfire suppression, or lack of, surrounding the Legion Lake fire in South Dakota, has some producers looking for some answers to a management plan they say isn't working.

Management of the fire that burned 84 square miles in and around Custer State Park, has the agriculture community nothing short of frustrated with the fire management, according to Delia Johnson of Fairburn.

The fire, which began Dec. 11 when gusting winds blew a tree into a power line near the intersection of U.S. Highway 16A and S.D. Highway 87 North, ended up burning about 58 square miles inside the park's boundaries, with approximately 11 square miles consumed in the eastern portion of neighboring Wind Cave National Park. The remaining 15 square miles were on private land to the south and east.

The fire was contained six days later. While no homes were destroyed, the damage is far reaching, and there are a lot of unanswered questions.

"We are all wanting to start 'chasing down' places and people to talk to, to get the State Forestry and the Forest service in check," Johnson shared.

She and her husband were on the fire, and witnessed management techniques including drip torches, but no water.

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"Fire has become big business and when these guys come onto a fire, they don't want to put it out, they want it to be a record breaker. Lining their pockets with FEMA money," Johnson said.

Reports of hot shots being turned away in the initial stages of the fire have not been confirmed, but Randy Schroth, a rancher in the Buffalo Gap area got a first-hand glimpse of how the agency's management plan failed, with a back fire that burned through his winter grass.

"It's kind of a crock of s***, the way they go about things," Schroth said, referring to the management plan and regulations set up for wildfires.

"The first thing they showed up with was drip torches," Schroth added. The drip torches were used to create a backfire. "From what I could see, they were making no attempt to put [the fire] out."

Schroth said neighbors and local firefighters were the driving force on the fire suppression, from his perspective, along with a few dozers used to build trenches. With an estimated 240 acres of winter and summer grass burned, and roughly 5 miles of fence, Schroth said it could have been worse. All of his cattle, including bulls that were in a pasture that was back-burned, are all doing well. And his father, who was flown, flight-for-life because of a magnesium deficiency, to the hospital, is home and doing well. And another plus, "We got some snow."

Schroth, along with other ranchers and the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association are hoping to get some discussions going with regulators and elected officials.

"Something's got to change," Schroth said.

While landowners were warned, most were shocked by the speed of the fire.

"I just didn't think it would move that fast," Randy's son Travis Schroth shared. "About an hour after [the initial warning], it was hitting our lease."

The Legion Lake fire is the third-largest in Black Hills history. Custer State Park reports 36,335 of its 71,000 acres were consumed by fire. Wind Cave reports having 6,966 acres burned. The remaining acres impacted were 819 acres of the state's School and Public Lands. Private property burned, too – about 9,903 acres. The Jasper Fire burned more than 80,000 acres in 2000 and the Oil Creek Fire in the Black Hills area of Wyoming burned 63,000 acres in 2012.

Despite efforts to contain fires, some argue that nature eventually must run its course, and fires like Legion Lake are inevitable.

Creech, who responded to three firefighting assignments in Montana this summer for a total of 48 days, teaches firefighting certification courses at Purdue University.

"What people don't know is that many ecosystems in the United States are fire-adapted," said Creech. "Fire is a natural part of the system out here."

And after nearly 100 years of fire suppression efforts across the United States, many states were susceptible to extensive fires, according to Creech.

"Fuel feeds the flames," he said. "The past two years have been very wet for Montana and it's built up a whole lot of grass and brush. Couple that with the unusually hot, dry conditions of this year and all that vegetation is parched and flammable. It was only a matter of time before it started to burn."

That's why Creech is among the fire specialists calling for a greater investment in fire management, which includes prescribed burns. Unlike fire suppression, prescribed burns actually use fire to help minimize more damaging wildfires in the future. Unfortunately, fire management has been inadequately funded over the years, which partially contributed to conditions that led to recent wildfires, according to Creech.

"Federal agencies, namely the U. S. Forest Service, runs out of money every year," Creech said. "They have to spend down their budget, the entire thing, not just the budget for fire suppression. In bad fire years, this drains the funds for recreation, trail management, and other projects. The Fuels Management program pays the price here. They typically run out of money right in the middle of the fire season."

According to the national interagency fire center, 2017 will go down in history as a very costly fire year with wildfires charring just over 9.5 million acres of U.S. vegetation, including not only forests, but grazing and ranchland. That total puts 2017 as one of the most active wildfire seasons in history. Just two years ago, about 10.1 million acres burned and in 2006 about 9.9 million acres burned.

In California, the state's wildfire season is estimated to be at 180 billion dollars, with 115 separate fires. And wildfires torched more than a million acres in Montana, this year. All Montana counties were approved for emergency grazing through the CRP program.

The costs for natural disasters for 2017 are still being tallied in some cases, but it's going down as one of the costliest records in history, with three major hurricanes, spring tornadoes devastating the Midwest, flooding in Missouri and Arkansas, and along with the fires, widespread drought.

South Dakota Stockgrowers Association (SDSGA) has been working to identify the ranch families affected by the Legion Lake Fire. It's estimated that maybe 20 families were affected in some way with losses to fencing, pasture and hay.

Affected Ranchers can contact the Custer/Fall River County Farm Service Agency for more information 605-745-5716

First Interstate Bank Locations are also taking donations.

First Interstate Bank

c/o Legion Lake Fire Fund

333 W Blvd, Ste 100

Rapid City, SD 57702

Hay donations are being coordinated by SDSA, 605-342-0429

Donations of Money, Hay and Trucking can also be directed to Farm Rescue. Please go to their website for more information. http://www.farmrescue.org

While the park has reopened, the damage to inside park boundaries is still being assessed. According to a release from the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department, park officials continue to work on fencing, trail and road repairs as well as assessing the condition of wildlife.

Some deer, elk, burros and buffalo have had to be put down because of injuries from the fire.

Planned hunting seasons for mountain lion and coyote also opened as scheduled on, but two antlerless elk hunting seasons, set for Dec. 30 to Jan. 7 and Jan. 13 to 31, have been canceled due to the vast area burned within these hunting units and because of the absence of elk in the area.

Click here to read another story about fire management on federal land.