Some worry wildfires are turning into big business
States and the federal government have been investing millions 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 regarding a management plan they say isn’t working.
Management of the fire that burned 84 square miles in around Custer State Park, has the agriculture community nothing short of frustrated with the fire management, according to Delia Johnson of nearby Fairburn, South Dakota.
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.
Many of those private acres burned, according to Johnson, after federal firefighters followed a common firefighting protocol. They lit backfires, using drip torches. But the raging winds did nothing but explode the backfires, engulfing more forest, range and grasslands than it should have.
The fire was contained six days later While there were no homes destroyed, the damage is far reaching, and many questions remain unanswered.
“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 the management techniques included drip torches, but no water, she said.
Backfires are one of the main tools in a firefighters’ box, but Johnson and others believe it may be time to reconsider the controversial practice, or at least use it with restraint.
“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 agencies management plan failed, with a back fire that actually 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. “From what I could see, they were making no attempt to put [the fire] out.”
“We never saw any of them use water,” Johnson added. “The sad part of it is, most of it didn’t need to burn.”
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 backburned, 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 good. And another plus: “We got some snow.”
While landowners were warned, most were shocked by the speed of the fire.
“I just didn’t think it would move that fast,” 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 was 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.
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.
There is nothing more fickle than wind, and the wind was raging during the Legion Lake fire. Wind can change direction a dozen times in a day, and big fires are known to produce their own winds: updrafts, downdrafts, fire tornados. And with the wind, it would seem that firefighters would follow the old Smokey Bear adage, of don’t play with matches. But backburning is a common fire management plan, that can….backfire.
After the recent snow, Johnson went to get a fire burn permit, and had to sign a release, stating she would be liable if the fire were to burn out of control. But the drip torch fires, along highway 79 that burned out of control, and burned fence posts and pasture, who is liable then, Johnson questioned? Under current laws, landowners with forest fire damaged property are left with the bill.
Lawsuits involving backburns or controlled burns have become more common, but like fires, are pretty unpredictable and inconsistent.
More than 100 landowners in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley sued the federal government over back burns set in 2000 that burned onto private land and destroyed at least 10 homes, according to news reports.
The lawsuit alleged the Forest Service had not properly authorized the fire and setting it was negligent due to weather conditions. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled that whether setting the fire was “wise, foolish or negligent” was irrelevant due to the discretionary function exception in the tort law. An appeals court agreed.
“The Forest Service’s decision to set backfires was a policy judgment in that it ‘involved a balancing of considerations, including cost, public safety, firefighter safety and resource damage,’” The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in support of the federal government.
In California, following a 2011 fire, an appeals court ruled that the federal government could be sued for damages caused by back burns, because of alleged failure on the part of the Forest Service to inform residents of firefighting plans. And in 2013, the Montana Supreme Court unanimously upheld a $730,000 judgement for a backburn set by firefighters that burned over a ranch.
Nature or Not, Fire Happens
Despite efforts to contain fires, some argue that nature eventually must run its course, and fires like Legion Lake are inevitable.
Stephen 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.”
2017 Record Year
Some producers and landowners are hoping that legislators will make some changes in big fire management. 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.
The state and/or the feds have control over the “fire protection district,” and management of the fire – on both government and private land, said Johnson.
Johnsons said they’d like to see backburning banned, especially on private land. “I don’t know how we are going to change this mentality,” she added, “It’s an ineffective plan.”
And the record year of fire acreage burned, has the federal government strapped for fire funding.
On Sept. 14, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue called the 2017 fire season the Forest Service’s most expensive ever, three weeks prior to the end of the fiscal year. Perdue said that fire suppression, which accounted for just 16 percent of the agency’s budget in 1995, now takes up over 55 percent.
“We end up having to hoard all of the money that is intended for fire prevention,” he wrote in a news release, “because we’re afraid we’re going to need it to actually fight fires.”
The Forest Service’s fire funding is subject to a budget cap based on the average cost of wildfire suppression over the last 10 years. But even as that average increases, the agency’s overall budget remains relatively flat, according to Perdue.
When fire-fighting costs go higher, the agency pulls from funds intended for other programs – including those that help reduce fire danger, like prescribed burns, thinning and insect control.
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.
Here’s hoping 2018 will be an improvement from 2017 for agriculture lands. The costs for natural disasters for 2017 are still tallying, 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.