It's risky business, lighting fires. No one who ever fought or managed or played with fire got away without scorching something.
We are going to see a decade or more of severe wildfires across the Black Hills. Now there are about 6,500 acres at Wind Cave we don't have to worry about. We burned it on purpose, even though it escaped the original control lines.
What difference will it make? A lot. The forested area burned by the fire will come back strong and more fire worthy than before. The grass will grow so green it will feel like Ireland in the early summer. Fire made it happen.
The Wind Cave fire reduced the heavy thatch of dry grass, young junipers and young pine trees that are drowning our forest everywhere, opened up much new grazing ground, increased grazing productivity for buffalo and wildlife, and will turn out to be just what the doctor ordered.
I hope no one was injured and no buildings were burned. Tort claims are separate issues decided in a different forum than this newspaper, but the fire itself provided an important anchor in what will likely be a tough fire year across the Hills.
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When we light fires there is no guarantee the fires will stay in the places we want them and not wander off. But we know beyond doubt fire will come, and the fires that come won't be like the Wind Cave fire. The fires that come in the summer will be angry beasts out of control in every way and unmindful of our most diligent control efforts.
We made a mistake in 1910 when we abandoned what foresters then called "light burning" when rangers would light large areas to ensure more wildlife browse, to get better green up in the spring, and to keep forests from becoming too dense and dangerous. We decided we could control nature by suppressing fires and we did a good job of it, until the balance of power slipped away.
Phil Lampert, a Custer County commissioner, worked with the federal agencies last year to burn part of his own property and some park and forest lands. The fire was a great success. It worked because federal, state and private people worked together to "light burn" an area of several thousand acres.
We need to do more of that kind of fire control, more light burning, more cooperative burning on purpose for our own sake. Not burning is irresponsible. Should we be burning in red flag conditions? Perhaps. In fact without drier conditions and stronger winds most of the places that need fire most, like the Missouri River Breaks, the lower elevation forest in the Black Hills, and other key areas won't burn properly.
I know it's frightening to contemplate, but if we prepare our yards and our minds to accept light burning every year, one day it will be second nature, and second nature in the way forward after our first 100 years of getting it wrong.