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Ranchers: Forest Service had 'zero support' for burn; Meeting today in Hettinger to address questions, claims process

Burned prairie is all that surrounds this flagpole after a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn went wrong, scorching more than 14,000 acres since Wednesday. The rubble was once Castle Butte Country School House. It burnt down in the blaze.

On day two of the Pautre Fire that destroyed more than 14,000 acres of grasslands in northwest South Dakota, the biggest question ranchers were asking was, "Why?"

"There's a real big question here that nobody's asking and that question is 'Should it have been burned?'" said Tim Smith, president of the Grand River Cooperative Grazing District. "Their reasons, their methods were incorrect for this area. They had very poor judgment in what they did on that day. There were red flag warnings out -- the temperature in Hettinger, North Dakota, was 71 degrees, highest in the state of North Dakota. The fire started 10 miles southeast of Hettinger, North Dakota"

A 130-acre controlled burn turned into a 14,000-acre wildfire when winds picked up.

"The science behind what they're doing is not applied to here," Smith said.

While there was no loss of structure or life -- including livestock -- Smith said enough grazing land was lost to feed 1,000 cow-calf pairs for an entire summer. The grazing association represents about 150,000 acres that can sustain 10,000 cow-calf pairs for a summer.

"The (U.S.) Forest Service and the association are supposed to work cooperatively to manage this land," Smith said. "If you had 85 to 90 members in your association that were adamantly against burning, would you burn it? That's the big question right there. They had zero support."

Numerous people, many members of the Grand River Valley Grazing Association, told Forest Service officials when asked that burning on Thursday would not be a good idea.

"They called me about the burn, I said, 'Don't burn,'" rancher John Johnson said. "They said, 'Well, why?' I said 'Cause we're having a cold front moving in and when a cold front moves in, we have high winds. Don't burn.'"

The crews ignored the locals' advice, citing their professionalism.

"So now I'm asking whether they're professional fire people or are they professional arsonists?" Johnson said.

He doesn't blame local crews.

"They get orders from Washington and North Dakota, the state office up in North Dakota -- if they tell you to burn at 8 o'clock Monday morning, I guess you're supposed to burn at 8 o'clock Monday morning. Evidently that's the way it works."

When the burn goes as planned it helps achieve their objectives, said Babete Anderson of the Forest Service.

"I know that folks aren't happy with the way -- with what happened, and we're not happy either," she said.

The grazing association has been working since last year to stop the burning of grass to improve utilization, Smith said.

"Nobody in the association supports controlled burning grass on the grasslands," he said.

The Forest Service is hosting a public meeting today at 4 p.m. at the North Dakota State University Research Extension Center in Hettinger to address questions about the fire and about the claims process.

"We're putting in an assessment -- we have a team that's doing an assessment on the things that were burned like the fences and the grass and we'll work through that process," Anderson said. She encourages anyone with questions to attend the meeting today.

Smith has been in contact with the Forest Service and has been advocating on behalf of the ranchers.

"We had a meeting at my house yesterday at 3:30 (p.m.)," he said Friday. "The meeting went good, the meeting was productive, but the whole thing -- it was a meeting. That still doesn't feed a cow that eats 30 pounds of hay every day."

The Johnsons of rural Lemmon, S.D., almost lost everything, but patriarch John credits God and fire crews for saving all of the buildings and animals on their land.

"I guess actually it was God's blessing the wind changed and stopped the fire from burning us out completely," he said. "One thing we've got in this country is the best fire department in the country."

His neighbors didn't fare so well.

"The wind switched directly from the east," Johnson said. "It was coming from the west and it switched just like that and went to the east and sent the fire over to our poor neighbors and completely wiped them out."

Johnson, an 82-year-old whose grandfather moved to the Grand River Valley in 1894 in three covered wagons, has never seen a fire this bad but knows the prairie will bounce back, eventually.

"It'll be awful nice and green someday if it ever rains," he said.

All hope could be lost to graze on the burned land this year.

"The negative impact on the grasslands themselves in terms of the long-term impact are really going to be none for the most part," said Kevin Sedivec, professor of rangeland management at NDSU in Fargo. "However the short-term impact, which is going to be of concern for this year -- especially if it stays dry -- is we're going to see those areas -- both private and public land -- are going to have a reduction in growth this year that could be major if it stays dry."

Wet seasons in 2010 and 2011 allowed for major growth, followed by a dry year in 2012. A fairly dry spring created even more fuel for the fire, he said.

"It was really prime for potential wildfires this year because of the dry conditions," Sedivec said.

As of Friday afternoon, the fire was approximately 75 percent contained, Anderson said. The mission for Friday was to have the fire 100 percent contained.

There were 18 trucks and two tankers with crews from Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, she said. All crews, about 35 firefighters total, have been on the ground.

Once the fire is contained, crews will focus on completely extinguishing it.

Mother Nature might be able to help fire control.

The seven-day forecast calls for rain and even thunderstorms for northwest South Dakota, said Melissa Smith, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Rapid City, S.D.

"For northwestern South Dakota, the wettest months are typically May and June," she said. "So we still do have a chance of seeing some good moisture this spring that can help the conditions out."

And while there were no major losses of life or structure, ranchers will still have to replace fencing and feed cattle.

"Where are they going to find forage for their cattle? Where are they going to put up hay?" Tim Smith asked. "Everyone was different. Some lost a little, some lost a lot. Some lost part of their pasture. Some of their hay ground. Some lost the majority of both."

Katherine Grandstrand
I graduated from Bemidji State University in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in mass communcations, from Columbia College Chicago in 2009 with a master's degree in journalism.  
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