Fire ravages private, federal land
A fire that started April 3, 2013, scorched grassland, fences and more in Perkins County, SD, after the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) ignited what was supposed to be a controlled burn of 135 acres of crested wheat grass.
The USFS reports that approximately 14,000 acres were burned before the “Pautre Fire,” which quickly moved past their intended burn perimeter, was extinguished.
Lemmon, SD, rancher and Grand River Cooperative Grazing Association (GRCGA) member Bob Hermann and his daughter Laurie Caspers, Lake Preston, SD, suffered significant loss resulting from the fire, as did Hermann’s two sons who are also involved in the family business.
Caspers and her husband Eric, who live in Eastern South Dakota but own land and cattle near her dad’s operation in Perkins County, have spent several days in Perkins County helping her dad and brothers, along with their hired man, get through a few days in the peak of calving season. Caspers’ brother Ryan and their hired man manage the cattle and pasture throughout the year. After the calves are weaned each fall, they are shipped to Lake Preston where the Caspers background them. Caspers’ cows were in the thick of calving when the fire blew in.
“Dad, Ryan, two neighbors and our hired man saw the fire coming. They gathered our cows, moved them to a corn field and then started breaking up sod around the field and the buildings as the fire was coming toward them. Then they literally waited as the fire surrounded them and the cattle and then it went on past.” The cattle had to be quickly moved back to the burned calving pasture as no water was available on the corn field. Caspers is grateful for family and neighbors who protected their cows and calves, as well as a new barn and a couple of older outbuildings “with just an old hydro tractor and a skid steer.” She said the fire trucks showed up later to put out smoldering spots.
Caspers said she and her husband figure that about 95 percent of their property was burned. Only the buildings were untouched.
“We headed to Perkins County the night of the fire. We left cows at home in Kingsbury County that are calving, I took off work, and we pulled the boys out of school because we felt like we needed to be here to help dad, Ryan and William (the hired man).” Caspers said her dad is busy calving his own cows and she didn’t see how he could take the time to add any extra work to his already full days. “We are so thankful for the help we’ve gotten and we want to try and help dad out for a couple of days too. Most of all we are grateful that nobody was hurt. That is the main thing,” Caspers said as she and her husband headed out for the night check.
Hermann said that approximately 80 to 90 percent of his own grassland was burned, along with 80 to 100 bales of grass hay. Their calving pasture burned and they have now moved their cows to some grazing association land to finish calving.
“The directors worked with the USFS and were really helpful in getting access for us into a small Forest Service pasture that hadn’t been burned,” he said.
Hermann, who immediately ordered a load of cake for feed, said some problems continue to arise such as pairs that don’t mother up after being moved several times. “Some of those calves were only a few hours old and we moved them out of the pasture, then back onto the burned ground, then onto a horse trailer to yet another pasture … that is a lot of stress on a baby calf and a new mother.” He added that miles of fence will have to be replaced and that an unknown number of trees were destroyed. “It’s going to take a few years to recover unless we would get an abundance of moisture,” said Hermann, who did report that a covering of snow fell a few days following the fire.
According to the GRCGA President Tim Smith, Lodgepole, SD, the ranger reported to him just prior to lighting the fire that his crew had determined that the ground moisture was favorable for a controlled burn and the ranger assured Smith that the U.S. Forest Service would have the necessary personnel on site if a problem would arise.
“Ranger Paul Hancock stopped at my home on the day before the fire and told me they would be doing a controlled burn the next day if conditions were right. I said that it was too dry and way too risky to do any burning at that time.” According to Smith, none of the grazing association directors were in favor of the proposed burn.
Smith explained that the GRCGA is an organization of cattle owners who hold a contract or permit with the USFS to graze cattle on about 155,000 acres of National Grasslands in Northwestern South Dakota. “The grazing association, made up of about 100 members, holds one permit. The members are issued association grazing permits and our grazing allocations are tied to our private land.” Each producer has grazing rights for a specific number of cattle in specific pastures and follows strict guidelines developed by the association and the USFS regarding cattle removal dates, fence upkeep, forage management and other issues. The first objective of the Bankhead Jones Farm Tenant Act which established the National Grasslands grazing land in the 1930s was to restore grass, the second objective was to keep local people on the land, by providing economic stimulus, said Smith.
Smith explained that the association appealed the USFS regarding a proposed burn in 2012 and the Dakota Prairie Grasslands – the entity that oversees several North Dakota and South Dakota National Grasslands properties – directed the USFS not to burn because of the association’s intense concerns.
Smith said the USFS had reported to the association at their January, February and March 2013 meetings that a controlled burn was not in their plan for this year if conditions didn’t change. “Conditions did change,” Smith said. “They got even worse.”
Smith said that the local radio station reported that the area was in a ‘red flag warning’ for fire that day, and 30-34 mph winds were predicted for the afternoon. He added that neither the local district ranger nor the district fire manager, who lives in nearby Lemmon, SD, were on site when the fire was lit.
According to Smith, the Dakota Prairie Grasslands discussed monitoring and the benefits of prescribed burning at a meeting in Bismarck, ND, in February of this year. Dr. Kevin Sedivec, NDSU Rangeland Management Specialist described to the group of association directors and USFS personnel that burning is effective on some plants including Juniper, Cedar and Aspen trees but on crested wheat grass there is generally no measurable difference four to five years following a fire.
Smith said he is concerned about the attitude of the Forest Service leading up to their decision to burn. “We have a memorandum of understanding from the supervisor of the Dakota Prairie Grasslands in which they make a commitment to ‘foster improved communications and working relationships’ with our association.” Smith said the burn is evidence that the USFS may be struggling to maintain those promises.
According to Smith, the USFS recently proposed intensive grazing research which would require different-than-usual grazing strategies of cattle on the grasslands and when local directors went to a meeting to discuss the issue, they were told that the association was “childish” for sending directors to be involved in the discussion.
Lemmon, SD, fire chief Chad Baumgarten, the local commander of the incident, said that there was some miscommunication between the USFS firemen and the volunteers in the beginning but soon they were able to get on the same page in order to get the fire put out. “It was a bad situation but no homes were lost and nobody was hurt. Maybe the grass will come back even better than ever,” he said.
Kent Brackel, a volunteer with the Hettinger (ND) Fire Department said that the USFS fire-fighting philosophy is more defensive as opposed to the offensive approach of the local departments. “They seemed more willing to let the fire burn to them, but we generally try to go to the fire, even in rough country, to put it out as quickly as we can. At one point there was a small area burning and we were told to just let it burn itself out so we backed off but then the wind switched directions and it flared up again. If we had just put it out we would have saved quite a bit of acreage.”
Brackel said that he had a fireman walking in front of his truck in the dark to watch for rocks and drop-offs so that he could keep working on the fire into the night, even in the rough terrain of the river breaks and rocky hills. He said they don’t wait for the fire to get to a more convenient locale, they just figured out a way to get to a fire and get it out as fast as possible. “We need to visit with the forest service and try to get on the same page and improve our communication so we can work together in the future and get fires under control more quickly.”
Local rancher, Grand River Cooperative Grazing Association (GRCGA) Director and volunteer fireman Bob Parker, Lodgepole, SD, said that likely about half of the acreage burned was private and the other half federal land. “I’m just trying to make a guess, but we definitely know that a lot of private land burned, which of course is quite hardship for those landowners as they lost grass as well as fence.” Parker added that the burned grass on the USFS land will directly affect the livelihood of local ranchers as many of them have grazing permits that burned along with their private land.
Parker complimented the local fire departments which are made up of volunteers – mostly ranchers – who themselves could have suffered loss as they were leaving home at a busy time. “Most of the firemen probably had cows calving but they headed to the fire because that is what rural people do, they help each other out.” Parker said he doesn’t know how many volunteer fire departments were on site – he estimated maybe 40 or 50 trucks, coming from as far as Keldron and Meadow, SD, along with many other communities. “The firemen deserve recognition, they dropped everything at home and rushed to the fire, and together we did get it stopped, without burning any homes or livestock. That says a lot for the people in this area.”
USFS Dakota Prairie Grasslands Public Affairs officer Babete Anderson said the USFS intends to compensate all of the individuals who lost property in the fire. “We’re researching all of our options to try and cover any of the private ranchers’ expenses caused by the fire. We’re looking at all options. We’ll be working with those that are affected, at least getting them the information about how the process works,” Anderson said.
The grazing association is working with an insurance claims specialist and their attorney to contact each individual who lost property in the fire, including private grazing, fences and such as well as federal grazing, Smith said. “We will submit a complete claim on everything lost whether it was private land, grazing association forage, or anything else.” he said.
The USFS has asked both the grazing association and the local county commission if either organization could help finance compensation efforts, assuring that the agency would reimburse them later, said Smith. He added that in a public meeting held April 6, 2013, the USFS stated, “We are liable, we are responsible. We will make restitution.”
“I just hope they do,” Smith said.