Forest Service apologizes for grassland fire

Farm Forum

HETTINGER, N.D. (AP) – A U.S. Forest Service official has apologized for a fire that burned more than 16 square miles of Dakotas grassland after flames escaped from a prescribed burn southeast of Hettinger.

”The Forest Service is extremely regretful that the fire escaped the containment area,” Grand River District Ranger Paul Hancock said during a public meeting on April 6 in Hettinger with nearly 100 farmers and ranchers.

Hancock said he gave the go-ahead for the 130-acre prescribed burn, The Dickinson Press reported.

No injuries have been reported, but one farm building has been confirmed lost. The fire in the Grand River National Grasslands burned about 10,800 acres in a rural area between Hettinger and the South Dakota towns of Buffalo and Lemmon. Officials reported the fire was 100 percent contained on April 7, when fire crews were patrolling the area and repairing fences cut during the firefighting effort.

The Forest Service has said it plans to compensate landowners for damage to fences, hay bales and anything else that burned.

Hancock’s apology did not sit well with Linda Evridge, whose family ranch near Lemmon was scorched.

”My land and everybody’s land in here was beautiful,” she told Hancock. ”The people in this room know this land better than you do. Do you think you should have called and talked to the people in this room before you burned anything?”

Forest Service officials have said they were intending to burn 130 acres of dead crested wheatgrass when the fire broke containment on April 3 and spread throughout federal and private grasslands due to dry and windy conditions.

Babette Anderson of the Forest Service said the spot weather forecast on April 3 did not include a red flag warning, but she did not have information on the wind speed when the fire broke containment. Ranchers have said they advised the Forest Service not to conduct the burn because a cold front moving through was likely to cause high winds.

Tim Smith, president of the Grand River Cooperative Grazing District, said the association has been against prescribed burns for the district since February because of dry conditions. He said he believes the association was proven right after the blaze destroyed fencing and livestock forage.

Hancock said the claims process for compensation still has to be worked out, but it is estimated the cost of recovery could approach $1 million.

”I wish I had all of the answers, but we will work with everyone to figure out how we can best help,” Hancock said.

Evridge said Hancock had better hope that $1 million will be sufficient for the recovery.

”We’re not going to see the trees we lost out there regrow, and we’re going to have erosion problems now. There is simply nothing out there anymore.”

Two more prescribed burns were planned this year for the Grand River District, but Hancock said those will be canceled.