South Dakota Wildfire Response Improved Since 2000

September 2, 2008

It has been eight years since the largest recorded wildfire in the Black Hills, and a state fire official says response to forest fires has improved tremendously in that period.

Despite a lengthy and severe drought that recently ended, no wildfires that started after the huge Jasper Fire have been in the same category.

It is not just luck that there have been few large fires in recent years, said Joe Lowe, state wildland fire suppression coordinator. Improvements in the firefighting system have enabled all the agencies involved to respond faster and more effectively, he said.

“The interagency fire community — state, local and federal — has come together and gotten better at what we do,” he said. “The improvements show how working together toward a common goal can be accomplished.”

The Aug. 24, 2000, Jasper Fire charred 130 square miles of forest west of Custer and took nearly two weeks to corral. Wind and extremely dry weather caused the blaze to explode into an inferno that, at one point, was burning an estimated 70 acres a minute.

Officials initially feared the blaze would spread to Custer, Hill City and Custer State Park. A massive firefighting effort prevented that from happening, but a post-fire review indicated several shortcomings in efforts to combat the flames.

Lowe said many changes have been implemented to address those deficiencies, and the changes have effectively helped marshal resources that now are used to squelch most fires before they get out of control.

One of those improvements involved consolidation of communications services for all of the agencies involved in taming wildfires, he said. The Northern Great Plains Interagency Dispatch Center at the Rapid City Regional Airport combines state and federal fire resources in one location.

“It took a four-tier dispatching system and brought it into centralized dispatching, where all the agencies are in one building,” Lowe said. “It reduces functional duplication of services and creates better efficiencies. And it’s a savings to the taxpayer.”

About 300 firefighters in South Dakota were trained and qualified to respond to wildfires at the time of the Jasper Fire. Lowe said that number is now 5,800.

Another change involves contracts for six small airplanes that can be quickly used to drop fire retardant on forest fires before they become too large and before ground crews can be mobilized, he said. There were no such contracts when the Jasper Fire started, Lowe said.

Lowe said a major improvement was establishment of a local fire-management team that can be quickly called into action on major blazes.

“The team is housed in the area and has all its own logistical support items,” he said. “That enables us to get on a major-complex fire and start managing it within six to eight hours. If we waited for a regional team to arrive, the time frame would probably we somewhere between 12 and 36 hours before it can mobilize and get here.”

Lowe said many other changes have been made to improve firefighting capabilities in the Black Hills and western South Dakota. The combination of all those changes has helped ensure that another fire as large as the Jasper Fire does not occur, he said.

“Conditions at times in recent years were probably even worse than those present in the Jasper Fire because we were just going into the drought then,” Lowe said. “Since then, much has changed and the quality of fire protection has greatly improved.”

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