South Dakota Ranchers Sue Feds Over 2013 Prescribed Burn That Spread

December 22, 2015

Fourteen northwestern South Dakota ranchers are suing the U.S. Forest Service for a 2013 prescribed burn that escaped its boundaries and scorched private land.

Two lawsuits filed this past week in federal court in Rapid City allege that the Forest Service committed numerous errors in its preparation and execution of the fire, the Rapid City Journal reported.

Crews intended to burn about one-third of a square mile of the Dakota Prairie National Grasslands on April 3, 2013. The burn spread across 17 square miles, including 11 square miles of privately owned land, and it took firefighters four days to contain it.

Neither lawsuit specifies the damages sought.

Ace Crawford, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Dakota, said Friday that she could not comment on the lawsuits.

Affected landowners previously filed more than $50 million worth of administrative claims that were denied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, triggering a six-month period in which the landowners could file lawsuits.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a June letter to U.S. Sen. John Thune, said the Forest Service relied on weather forecasts from the National Weather Service’s Rapid City office that ultimately proved inaccurate.

“While we deeply regret the losses suffered by those affected by the Pautre Fire, a careful and thorough review of the claims disclosed no liability on the part of the U.S. Government,” Vilsack wrote.

But one of the lawsuits, which lists five plaintiffs represented by Rapid City-based attorney Terry Hofer, includes the text of a Rangeland Fire Danger Statement for the prescribed-burn area issued by the weather service more than seven hours before the fire started.

“Fires will spread rapidly and show erratic behavior,” the statement said. “Outdoor burning is not recommended.”

The second lawsuit, which lists nine plaintiffs represented by attorney Gary Jensen, is less specific about the Forest Service’s alleged actions but says more about damages to grassland, hay, crops, soil, fences, trees, wildlife, cattle and the market value and fertility of surviving cattle. It also says ranchers incurred other costs related to post-fire cleanup, invasive weed control, rental of alternative pasture land and medical care for injured cattle.

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