USA — U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said earlier this month that his agency may alter its approach to wildfire this year and let more fires burn instead of attacking each one.
While this approach may work in some states, in South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest, the policy has been put out fires as soon as they’re spotted. That’s because there is so much private land interspersed throughout the national forest and forest boundaries are very close to many cities in the Black Hills.
BHNF supervisors have acknowledged that reality, and there is a great deal of cooperation among federal, state and local firefighting agencies to aggressively attack wildfires within the Black Hills Fire Protection District, which roughly borders I-90 to the north, Highway 79 to the east, Cheyenne River to the south and the Wyoming-South Dakota border to the west.
Following the devastating Jasper Fire in August 2000 that burned more than 83,000 acres in the Black Hills, South Dakota created the Division of Wildland Fire Suppression. The state has kept firefighting assets available at Rapid City Regional Airport, and during the fire season, a hot shot crew is kept on standby 24/7 in the Black Hills fire district.
With the state facing a second year of drought, another difficult fire season lies ahead. Counties within the fire district either have extended last year’s burn bans or never allowed them to lapse.
We are reminded that four North Carolina National Guard airmen lost their lives when their tanker crashed last July while fighting the White Draw Fire near Edgemont. The state and U.S. Forest Service joined forces to battle numerous wildfires in the Black Hills last year that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Last year, the Forest Service dropped its let-it-burn policy on wildfires because of the drought, and this year the policy is being restored.
We don’t expect to see a let-it-burn policy in place in the Black Hills because of the drought and the fact that any fire is a threat to private property and people as quickly as it starts.
A reminder, in case it’s needed, that as the weather warms up, so, too, does the wildfire danger in the Black Hills forest and West River grasslands.