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Gov. Mike Rounds says wilderness designation won’t stop him from sending in state firefighting crews if a blaze breaks out in the Black Elk Wilderness, where a mountain pine beetle outbreak has increased the risk for a major wildfire.

“In an emergency, they’re going to have to stop me from going in,” Rounds said in a recent interview.

But federal forest managers say they, too, plan to fight fire within the Black Elk Wilderness. In fact, crews have fought fires in the Black Elk in previous years, according to Black Hills National Forest supervisor Craig Bobzien. The amount and type of equipment they would use depends on the fire threat level, Bobzien said.

Rounds has cited the Black Elk Wilderness, where pine beetles have killed up to 80 percent of the trees, as one reason for his opposition to a wilderness proposal for parts of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland east of Rapid City and his support for the National Park Service’s cancellation of fireworks for the Independence Day celebration at Mount Rushmore. The Black Elk lies next to Mount Rushmore National Memorial and now poses a threat of wildfire for the central Black Hills, including Rushmore to the northeast and Custer State Park to the south, Rounds said.

Even without fireworks, one lightning strike after a dry period could set off a conflagration, Rounds said. “It’s a matter not of if, but when you have a major fire there.”

Rounds said state firefighting crews would be aggressive if fire breaks out in the Black Elk.

“If it means going onto some wilderness areas in order to stop it, then so be it,” he said. “We’re going to stop it before it gets out and does damage to public property that belongs to the state of South Dakota and before it damages private property and before it gets out and has an opportunity to impact human life.”

But Rounds said he and other state officials are talking with Black Hills National Forest managers to prepare for the coming fire season, including the possibility of a fire in the Black Elk Wilderness or the surrounding Norbeck Wildlife Preserve.

Rounds and Joe Lowe, coordinator of the state Wildland Fire Suppression Division, say cooperation between the state and local Forest Service officials is good.

Bobzien agrees and says that the Forest Service can -- and will -- fight fire in the Norbeck and even in the Black Elk Wilderness. He said, in fact, that the Forest Service has fought fires in the Black Elk in previous years.

Bobzien said the 1964 Wilderness Act allows firefighting in wilderness areas, with varying restrictions for varying levels of emergency.

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The greater the risk of catastrophic fire, the more that mechanized equipment can be used within the wilderness, he said. For example, if a lightning strike starts a fire in moist conditions, Bobzien can authorize hand crews with crosscut saws.

“We have done some of that already,” he said. “That’s routine throughout past fire seasons.”

But if fire breaks out in hot, dry conditions, mechanized equipment up to and including helicopters can be used to fight fire in the Black Elk, Bobzien said.

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Although the Black Elk has no roads within it, Lowe said many of the wildfires over the past few years have broken out in rough terrain that is difficult to reach by road. “So far, we’ve met the challenge on those,” he said.

Lowe and Bobzien also said that federal and state fire officials are already making plans for the 2010 fire season. “I think everybody realizes the gravity of the situation,” Lowe said.

Lowe said the state Division of Wildland Fire Suppression is much better prepared to deal with major fires now than it was a decade ago. “We are fully capable of handling large fires and make aggressive attacks on fires,” he said.

Plus, Lowe said, cooperation is at an all-time high among state and federal agencies.

Bobzien said forest managers are looking at what can be done along the boundaries of the Black Elk to reduce the impact of the pine beetles as well as the threat from wildfire.

The Hell Canyon District has issued a draft environmental impact statement outlining three alternatives to do prescribed burns in the Black Elk and burns and mechanical cutting in the Norbeck.

A decision is expected this spring, but work probably won’t begin until this fall, missing this summer’s flight of pine beetles.

Contact Steve Miller at 394-8415 or steve.miller@rapidcityjournal.com.

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