A month after Perkins County fire, questions and anger still linger

A month after Perkins County fire, questions and anger still linger

19 May 2013

published by www.rapidcityjournal.com

USA — On a desolate patch of prairie near Lemmon, employees of the U.S. Forest Service lit a fire to clear 130 acres of crested wheat grass on April 3. The agency often conducts burns to remove non-native grasses and foster the growth of native species.

But something that day went radically awry: high winds fanned the fire outside of its intended perimeter. Firefighters spent five days fighting the blaze, drawing 32 fire trucks at its peak, and decimating 10,800 acres of public and private land by its end.

More than a month later, a dozen ranching families in Perkins County are still tending to ashen fields.

Anger and sadness mingle in equal measure, as do lingering questions: Why did the U.S. Forest Service conduct the burn when conditions were dry and windy? What compensation will the agency provide for damages? And, above all, how do some ranchers survive until that compensation arrives, possibly years from now?

Gayle Evridge, 67, who saw 2,000 acres of farmland burn, said few ranchers like the answers they have been given so far about how they will be compensated for costs ranging from moving cattle to buying feed to replacing burned fences.

“The government process of repayment is a little different then what they first told us,” he said. “They told us, ‘We will make you whole again; don’t worry about it’, and since then, they have backed down a whole lot.”

The U.S. Forest Service has told ranchers it may take two to five years before they receive compensation for financial losses due to the burn.

For some farmers nearing retirement, like Evridge and his wife, that wait isn’t the end of the world. But, he said, it’s economically devastating for younger ranchers who have to shoulder the costs of repairs and lost productivity with no immediate compensation.

“You look into into those people’s eyes and see big tears well up, and you think, ‘What the hell can I do to help them?'” he said.

But all farmers, include Evridge, remain anxious about what damages will be covered on their properties, which are near the North Dakota border, northeast of Rapid City.

Evridge has already spent $30,000 to move his herd to pasture lands not burned in the fire. Later this summer, if he doesn’t have any grass left to feed his herd, he may have to spend $40,000 to $60,000 to truck his cattle to a feedlot.

He’s also started to sell cattle off unusually early in the season, which will likely mean he will make less money this year.

Intangible losses

And, even if the government does cover some of those costs and losses, Evridge doesn’t know how it will handle less tangible damages. The fire caused widespread erosion to effected land, and recent windstorms have scoured away topsoil.

“There’s a lot of value to it,” he said.

Vince Gunn, 72, who saw half of his 1,200 acres of farmland torched, also has unanswered questions about compensation.

Gunn is concerned that the government may repay for fences lost, but not the labor to rebuild them. He and other ranchers also don’t know whether they will be able to deduct some of the those replacement expenses from their taxes, as they would normally.

And, while all the costs of repair and lost productivity are unpleasant, Gunn said it’s made all the worse because the fields are suffering under a second year of drought.

“It’s just brittle grass,” he said. “Even though it’s green, it just breaks off, and it’s not very much grass considering it’s just starting to grow in the spring here.”

But options for recourse beyond the U.S. Forest Service are limited. Although some ranchers talked about filing a lawsuit against the federal government, they have abandoned that plan.

“We found out from other individuals, and even land grazing units that sued the government, that’s a losing proposition because they have a mega, mega amount of lawyers and attorneys and we would spend millions of dollars and still lose,” he said.

Babete Anderson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service, said she didn’t know what damages would be covered and referred questions to the agency’s claims division. On Thursday and Friday, the agency’s claims division in Albuquerque failed to return phone calls from the Journal.

Why burn at all?

The concern among ranchers about compensation has only heightened scrutiny over the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to conduct the prescribed burn in the first place.

Tim Smith, president of the Grand River Cooperative Grazing Association, said that he repeatedly urged the U.S. Forest Service to not conduct a prescribed burn during drought conditions.

Smith’s group represents ranchers in the area who partially use U.S. Forest Service land for pasture. Last year, the district ranger respected the group’s request not to conduct prescribed burns. This year, Smith said, the agency ignored that request.

“They told me they were going to do it anyway,” he said.

Anderson said that every prescribed burn has a management plan that lays out conditions, like temperature and wind speed, that will ensure a burn doesn’t get out of control. In this case, she said, the fire was within what the U.S. Forest Service considered safe conditions.

“It was within prescription at the time that they started the burn,” she said.

But Smith and other ranchers question the safety of those parameters. A radio broadcast at 4:21 a.m., about six hours before the fire was lit, warned that fire risk in the region was “very high,” he said.

“The grassland fire-danger index will reach the very high category this afternoon,” said KNDC radio, based in Hettinger, N.D. “Very poor weather conditions for a very low moisture content of grasses and other dry organic materials on the ground indicate that dangerous burn conditions exist. Fires will spread rapidly and show erratic behavior. Outdoor burning is not recommended.”

David Carpenter, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Rapid City, also confirmed that on April 2, a day before the blaze, the fire danger was forecast to be “very high” on the day of the prescribed burn. Humidity was predicted to be 31 percent, temperatures at 63 degrees, and wind speeds from 16 to 20 mph through the morning and afternoon.

Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, said there was a suspicion that the U.S. Forest Service had been more interested in sticking to the date it scheduled to conduct the burn, rather than heeding the weather conditions. “You can’t schedule something like a prescribed burn to your office schedule,” she said.

For ranchers like Evridge, who have overcome a lifetime of natural disasters on the prairie, that has made the fire the ultimate insult to injury.

“It wasn’t a natural disaster,” he said. “It was man-made. They were warned. So it just hurts them so much more.”

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