A report released Tuesday confirms what many thought about the April 13 prescribed burn that went awry at Wind Cave National Park, torching 6,240 acres before scores of firefighters could extinguish it.
The 62-page report prepared by a federal interagency team of fire-management specialists says the National Park Service team underestimated how dangerously dry conditions were at the time and did not provide adequate fire protection in the event it spread beyond the planned 1,000 acres, which it began to do about three-and-half hours after ignition.
The report, however, did shed light on a near tragedy when a UTV that a National Park Service employee and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service worker were riding in rolled and then was consumed by the fire. The two managed to escape injury, but it was a close call.
The biggest red flag in the report was the revelations of a “let’s burn” mindset among the fire crew and that one fire management officer had a “gung-ho” attitude about how about much fuel would be burned that day.
While we appreciate enthusiasm from our federal workers, this provides valuable insight into why the fire team pulled the trigger despite the high fire danger signs and warnings that were commonplace during a hot and dry spring already punctuated by a number of fires.
The report goes on to describe "the perfect storm" that led to the fire burning out of control. In this case, the perfect storm was an increase in wind speed — hardly a rare occurrence in the Black Hills — that blew an ember into a dry patch beyond the border of the prescribed burn.
We applaud the investigators for how quickly the report was prepared and for providing additional insight into how the fire team made a decision that in the end required state and local firefighters to quickly mobilize and help fight a fire that covered the entire area in a smoky haze for days.
Despite these findings in the report — prepared by experts from U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service — Wind Cave National Park spokesman Tom Farrell points out that no park officials or fire-team members were found negligent and that no disciplinary action will be taken against anyone involved in the burn.
He also said that Wind Cave officials learned valuable lessons after reviewing the final report that will be used when future prescribed burns are planned.
While we are pleased that they say they have learned from this mistake, it's going to take more than a little assurance to convince us that better planning and decision-making will occur before the next prescribed burn is given the green light.
As a result, we support Sen. John Thune's "The Prescribed Burn Approval Act," which would require the National Park Service to at least collaborate with local and state officials when determining the appropriate time to start a burn.
In addition to helping local firefighters prepare for the prescribed burn, this legislation would make federal agencies more accountable to the public and perhaps act as a check if a "let's burn" mentality clouds good judgment again.