Subscribe for 33¢ / day
Feds: Governor a danger on fires

FILE -- Gov. Bill Janklow, left, and South Dakota Wildland Fire Coordinator Joe Lowe look over a map during the Battle Creek Fire of 2002. The federal deputy Type 1 incident commander would later complain that Janklow issued orders without consulting federal fire managers. (Journal file photo)

Journal Staff Writers

Gov. Bill Janklow's combative, take-charge management style and unwillingness to cooperate with federal officials on wildfires has threatened the safety of firefighters and made firefighting more difficult, officials from the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies say.

Janklow vigorously defends his actions, saying they were necessary to overcome a federal bureaucracy that responds too slowly to emergencies.

"Janklow will not let the Black Hills burn for two and a half days while we're waiting for a Type 1 team," the governor said, referring to the elite federal teams called in for the biggest wildfires. "I think they are more concerned with their arbitrary rules than they are about saving people's lives."

But top federal firefighters say Janklow's "independent action" during wildfires could have disastrous consequences. "Independent action is a very strong word in firefighting," Bill Waterbury, the Type 1 incident commander on the huge Jasper Fire of 2000 said. "It's almost a criminal act. We've had people getting killed doing that."

Interviews with firefighters and documents that the Rapid City Journal obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show the dispute goes back at least three fire seasons.

The Flagpole Fire

On the 7,000-acre Flagpole Fire west of Angostura Reservoir in August 2000, Janklow called in firefighters from across the state - many untrained in fighting wildfires - without consulting federal officials. Janklow also ordered 17 National Guard bulldozers to respond.

Most of the reinforcements arrived too late to help, and some crews started work without notifying federal fire managers, according to Bill Gabbert, a Wind Cave National Park ranger who was the Type 3 federal commander. "They were going directly to the fire without any coordination," Gabbert said. "No one was coordinating or supervising them."

Gabbert also noted in his "unit log" that state planes and South Dakota National Guard helicopters fighting nearby fires were too close to the Flagpole airspace and that the state and federal pilots could not communicate with each other by radio.

Gabbert called it "a severe safety hazard."

Janklow did not dispute Gabbert's account, but he said he needed to do everything he could to respond to a big fire.

The Jasper Fire

The Jasper Fire a few weeks later burned more than 84,000 acres in the Southern Hills west of Custer, making it the biggest ever in the Black Hills.

Federal firefighters were frustrated when Janklow ordered National Guard bulldozers to cut a fire line on Limestone Road in Custer County, in front of the fire.

Joe Harbach of the Black Hills National Forest was the Type 3 incident commander during the early days of the fire. He said the dozer crews, untrained in fighting wildfires, were working without radios, protective clothing or fire shelters.

In addition, there were no "dozer bosses," personnel on foot who guide bulldozers over rough terrain, as required by federal safety rules.

Janklow said the National Guard operators were not in danger. "All they did was widen a road," the governor said. "If they can drive in combat when somebody's shooting at them, why can't they drive out on a fire?"

When Waterbury arrived as Type I commander, he and Janklow had a frank discussion about who was in charge of the fire.

Waterbury said he told the governor there would be only one incident commander on the fire. "I did make the comment that if it came down to a point of putting firefighters at risk or independent actions, whether that be private citizens or the National Guard, I wouldn't hesitate to pull all of our firefighters off the line," Waterbury said in a recent interview. "If necessary, we'd use our federal authority to arrest people who were interfering with our firefighting."

Janklow recalled the conversation this way: "I told him, 'You're not going to arrest me or anybody else. Unless I have your word that this fire won't go on private property, I'll fight this fire wherever it's at.' And I did."

But federal firefighters said the fire line Janklow cut damaged forest roads without helping to stop the fire.

Forest Service personnel also criticized Janklow's use of state aircraft.

"The governor flew his fixed-wing several times on us, and we never knew he was around. He never told us he would be there," Scott Spleiss, federal air-operations manager on the Jasper Fire, said.

Janklow and his pilot, Ray Ondell, said the state plane never flew over the fire without permission from the Forest Service. But June Johnston, the head dispatcher at the Forest Service's Custer dispatch center, confirms Spleiss' account.

"During the Jasper Fire, we set down all of our fire-fighting aircraft - helicopters and tankers - because of an airspace intrusion, and it was the governor of South Dakota," Johnston said.

Janklow said that if the state pilot had violated restricted airspace, he would have lost his license - and that never happened.

But the state plane was involved in an incident that resulted in a federal "Safety Communication," or "SAFECOM," during the Jasper Fire.

The SAFECOM reads: "A temporary flight restriction (TFR) was in place, procedures for requesting entry into the TFR were not followed by the state pilots."

Black Hills National Forest Supervisor John Twiss also was cited for flying aboard the state plane. Forest Service personnel are not allowed to fly on aircraft that are not certified to fly inside federal fire operations.

The SAFECOM also acknowledges, however, that Twiss' presence on the flight was fortunate. He gave the state pilot the correct frequency to communicate with other aircraft in the TFR.

"Communication was established with other aircraft working the fire, but it was a 'surprise,'" The SAFECOM reported.

The report also said, "Not sure how to deal with Governor??"

After the flight, the Forest Service's regional aviation- safety officer paid a "courtesy visit" to South Dakota to talk to state pilots.

Wildfires in 2001

After the Flagpole and Jasper fires, Janklow recognized weaknesses within the state's fire-fighting system. He created the state Division of Wildland Fire Suppression and hired experienced California firefighter Joe Lowe to run it - a choice that drew praise from state and federal firefighters alike.

But there still were communication problems between federal firefighters and state pilots.

On Aug. 28, 2001, during the Ghost Fire near Custer State Park, federal firefighters on the ground were unable to communicate with a small single-engine air tanker, or SEAT, working on contract to the state.

The federal firefighters had to withdraw.

The state aircraft made three drops, some of which knocked down trees. "I believe that if my crews would have been in the area, someone would have been seriously injured," the federal fire commander wrote. He also wrote that the drops did not help stop the fire.

Lowe said the SEAT was launched because the fire was just outside the boundary of Custer State Park and jurisdiction was unclear. The plane experienced unexpected radio trouble, which was fixed the same day, he said.

Five days later, on Sept. 2, on the Sutherland School Fire northwest of Hot Springs, a state SEAT dropped a load of retardant directly on Forest Service personnel and vehicles.

According to the safety report, the state airplane had no communication with firefighters on the ground. They contacted a Forest Service contract helicopter, from which a message was relayed to the SEAT pilot not to drop retardant in that area.

The report also said that the SEAT did not meet Interagency Fire Standards for radio communications.

Lowe counters that the Forest Service itself ordered the tanker, knowing it did not meet all requirements, because the SEAT was closer than other aircraft. The pilot told Lowe he was on the correct frequency and could not contact the ground crews when he tried to do so.

Little Elk Fire

In July of this year, the Little Elk Fire burned 673 acres north of Piedmont.

Later, a Forest Service report cited National Guard helicopters for carrying full water buckets over Interstate 90. Should the bucket fail, the large volume of water could injure motorists, officials said.

Lowe said the Highway Patrol controlled traffic to allow the aircraft to cross the highway.

Janklow said the citation was just one more example of federal rules that defy common sense. "When I heard the feds wouldn't fly water buckets over I-90, I thought they'd lost their minds," the governor said.

Battle Creek Fire

The strained relationship between the governor and federal firefighters erupted in public during the Battle Creek Fire, which burned 13,700 acres last August in the Rockerville-Keystone area.

"That is the worst example of fire management," Janklow told reporters after discovering one morning that slurry bombers were not flying. Federal officials later said poor visibility had grounded the planes.

Tom Cable, the deputy Type 1 incident commander on the fire, remembers Janklow "really throwing a monkey wrench" into the feds' fire plan.

Janklow ordered fire engines and National Guard personnel without consulting the federal incident commander, Cable said.

"He set up his own incident command post inside our command post. His RV was there the whole time," Cable said.

Cable wrote in his fire report: "He (Janklow) was directing the activities of the Highway Patrol, the sheriff's department and the National Guard."

Janklow scoffed at the description of his RV as a "command post" but said he issued orders on the fire. "I walk around issuing orders," Janklow said. "Did I take independent action on Battle Creek? You're darn right I did."

Janklow remains outraged that on Battle Creek, a federal fire, federal agencies sent nine federal fire engines compared to 117 state and local engines.

Janklow also complained that there was no plan to protect the town of Keystone, other than evacuating its residents. "I got a plan together real quick," Janklow said. " We were going to fight the battle. It's like the Alamo. They didn't win, but they didn't leave."

Cable saw things differently. "We spent a lot of time educating him (Janklow) about what we can and can't do legally," Cable said.

Janklow's state-radio call sign is "G-1" for "Governor 1," and Cable referred to it during a recent interview.

"We worked around the G-1 factor," Cable said. "He's a dictator. He's not a team player. He makes decisions without involving folks who need to be involved."

But Cable also praised state and local firefighters. "All the underlings worked together great. And Joe (Lowe) took the governor. That was a full-time job."

The helipad incident

One incident during the Battle Creek Fire illustrates Janklow's bold behavior on fires.

An Aug. 19 SAFECOM filed by Spleiss, the heliport manager during the fire, describes what happened:

"At approximately 17:35 (5:35 p.m.), the Governor of South Dakota, Bill Janklow, entered the helibase at a high rate of speed for existing road conditions."

The red and blue emergency lights on Janklow's vehicle were flashing. Gen. Phil Killey, adjutant general of the South Dakota Army National Guard, also was in the vehicle.

The fire was in "blow-up condition."

Get news headlines sent daily to your inbox

"No one at the helibase was sure why Janklow had driven in so fast and the governor did not offer an explanation," the report says.

Janklow said he drove off the road to enter the helibase because a closed gate blocked the way.

Janklow backed his vehicle toward a pad where a helicopter was on its "short final" approach, according to the report.

"I ran toward Janklow's vehicle and yelled," Spleiss wrote in the report. "He looked behind him and saw the aircraft and stopped just short of pad 1."

Once Janklow saw the approaching aircraft, he drove around Spleiss and pad 1 and "across the deck" to pad 7, where a Blackhawk helicopter was fueling with its engine running and rotors turning.

Killey boarded the helicopter.

The helibase manager radioed the helicopter and said Killey should not fly because he was "not essential to the mission."

Several minutes of discussion followed. At the helibase manager's second request, Killey got off the aircraft. The helicopter then lifted off "with the governor's vehicle within 75 to 100 feet."

No vehicles are allowed on the helipad deck while aircraft are operating, and Janklow's vehicle was too close to the moving rotors, both Spleiss and Cable said.

Janklow's actions prompted Spleiss to call in armed Forest Service law enforcement agents, Spleiss said.

"I thought to myself, 'I need to get some cops out here.' That was the first time in my 17-year history where I've seen us request armed law enforcement officers," Spleiss said.

Both Janklow and Killey adamantly insist their actions were not unsafe.

"I don't drive under rotors any more than I walk into them," said Janklow.

Killey said he and the governor were "not even close" to causing a safety problem. "There's no way I'm going to let him get that close. We were a good 50 feet from the Blackhawk," Killey said.

Janklow pointed out that both he and Killey are pilots.

He also said the helibase, located in an open field, wasn't well-marked. "They should have put up a sign saying, ' No vehicles,'" Janklow said.

Spleiss, however, expressed frustration in his report after the fire, under the heading "corrective actions."

"This is an example of the political pressure that can interrupt our normal job performance," Spliess wrote. "The only thing we could do short of stopping the helicopter operations, was to order federal law enforcement to guard the road into the helibase. This was what was recommended to the (incident commander) to prevent this from occurring again. The bottom line is that we can not allow anyone to compromise the safety of our operations."

Working together

Even Janklow's critics acknowledge that he correctly has pointed out some flaws in the federal fire-fighting system.

"He made some speeches that actually made sense," Cable, the Battle Creek Fire deputy incident commander, said. "He talked about red tape and how the rules don't allow you to do things in a timely manner, such as get the team activated and get supplies. We don't like that any more than anybody else, but we have to work within the system."

Waterbury, the Type 1 incident commander from the Jasper Fire, said he didn't mind Janklow's criticisms. "I felt at times I was asked penetrating questions and was challenged, but so what?" Waterbury said. "'Happy' is a relative term working on big fires."

Federal officials also universally praise Joe Lowe, who they say works hard to cooperate with federal firefighters. Communication between state planes and federal firefighters improved last summer, federal officials say.

Lowe also defends Janklow, his boss.

Lowe pointed out that Janklow is spending $1.6 million on the Great Plains Interagency Dispatch Center, which will open in February at Rapid City Regional Airport. "That will bring all players together, and it is a perfect example of the legacy this governor's going to leave," Lowe said. "His heart's in the right place. I've never seen a bigger supporter of public safety."

For many federal firefighters, Janklow's philosophy is illustrated in a comment the Type I commander heard him make during the Jasper Fire:

"A fire is like a war, and there's going to be casualties," Janklow said.

The governor said he didn't mean that firefighters should die in fires. He believes trained professionals can keep themselves out of harm's way. "They know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em."

Janklow also pointed out that federal firefighters later agreed that two of his "independent actions" on the Battle Creek Fire were useful.

But federal firefighters point out that the governor has no fire training and therefore does not understand the ramifications of his decisions. Janklow himself admits he never had been on a wildfire before the summer of 2000.

Cable, who works in the Lassen National Forest in California, said training was especially important on big fires, which can blow up quickly.

"We're not going to get somebody killed for any reason," Cable said. "We have objectives on every incident, and No. 1 is firefighter and public safety. Any of us who have been in the fire game for any amount of time, we've buried people. We don't want to go through that again."

Contact Denise Ross at 394-8438 or

Contact Bill Harlan at 394-8424 or

You must be logged in to react.
Click any reaction to login.