RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota officials were almost giddy over what happened during the Camp 5 forest fire near Deadwood last week.
U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Pam Brown and Joe Lowe, director of the state Division of Wildland Fire Suppression, said a new fire management structure could have profound results in the fire-prone Black Hills National Forest in southwest South Dakota and northeast Wyoming.
“From my perspective, this was huge,” said Brown, who runs the Northern Hills District of the Black Hills National Forest.
The April 17 fire burned 775 acres, or a little more than 1 square mile, about halfway between Deadwood and Sturgis. Firefighters had it 60 percent contained April 18 and fully contained by the next night.
Though cool, wet weather the first night of the fire helped put it down, both Lowe and Brown emphasized quick actions that helped save homes in a nearby subdivision: a crucial “burn-out” and fire lines built on the east side of the fire.
They were excited about a fire management structure called a “unified command,” which allows various agencies to come together quickly to coordinate firefighting efforts.
At the Camp 5 fire, using the new technique allowed officials to come up with a written fire plan within minutes of their arrival on the scene.
Lowe and Forest Service firefighter Terry Tompkins were among the first to get there. Because the fire was on Forest Service land, Tompkins would have been in charge under the traditional system.
However, Lowe had already discussed trying the unified command system with Dean Berger, fire management officer for the Black Hills National Forest. Lowe and Tompkins, talking on cell phones on their way to the fire, decided to give unified command a try. Brown, who manages the ranger district where the fire started, also approved.
“We had to get after it fast,” she said.
Lowe and Tompkins met in person at the fire to discuss a strategy, which included fighting the fire aggressively all night, focusing on the east flank of the fire and setting a risky east flank burn-out that could help save homes. They also agreed on a system for ordering people, equipment and supplies and even roughed out a cost-sharing agreement.
Lowe said the most important objective, aside from safety, was to “build a box” on a map.
“Once the box is defined, you look for ways to keep the fire in it,” he said.
While Lowe and Tompkins were building the box, the initial responders worked the fire, which was already moving fast through tree tops. Lowe and Tompkins then picked an “operations officer” to run the effort.
That turned out to be Randy Skelton, a battalion chief with the Rapid City Fire Department.
Brown said that from the first night on, firefighters from about a dozen organizations worked as though they had trained together all year. They came from the Forest Service, the state of South Dakota, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, volunteer fire departments and county agencies. Specially trained state prisoners from the Rapid City Trusty Unit also fought the blaze.
“It’s great when it’s so effortless,” Brown said, because multi-jurisdictional firefighting can be difficult.
Though parts of the unified command system have been used here before, Lowe said this was the first time the formal structure had been used on a big wildfire in the Black Hills.
He said the Black Hills National Forest is honeycombed with private land holdings, which makes it ripe for jurisdictional confusion.