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Forest Service at fault for Pautre Fire: Ranger apologizes

Linda Evridge, left, whose family ranch near Lemmon, S.D., was devastated by a U.S. Forest Service prescribed burn, expresses disbelief during Saturday's public meeting at the Hettinger Research Extension Center with the decision by Grassland River District Ranger Paul Hancock, standing right, to go-ahead with a 130-acre controlled burn that turned into a 10,800-acre wildfire over federal and private lands.

HETTINGER -- In a meeting with nearly 100 farmers and ranchers from here to Lemmon, S.D., the U.S. Forest Service on Saturday claimed responsibility for the Pautre Fire that scorched thousands of acres of grassland between Wednesday and Friday.

"The Forest Service is extremely regretful that the fire escaped the containment lines," Grand River District Ranger Paul Hancock said during the public meeting at the North Dakota State University Research Center in Hettinger.

Hancock said he gave the go-ahead for the burn.

The apology didn't sit well with Linda Evridge, whose family ranch near Lemmon was destroyed.

"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?

"That ranch is precious to me, and you remember that when you make your next decision whether or not to conduct a burn."

The Forest Service said it was intending to burn 130 acres of dead crested wheatgrass when the fire broke containment areas and spread throughout federal and private grasslands due to dry and windy conditions.

In a news release sent late Friday evening, the Forest Service said the Pautre Fire, located on the Grand River Ranger District of the Dakota Prairie Grasslands, was about 90 percent contained.

There were still 16 fire engines and two water tenders assigned to the fire, which has destroyed about 10,800 acres of grasslands in northwest South Dakota, but no injuries had been reported.

One outbuilding had been confirmed lost in the fire.

Tim Smith, president of the Grand River Cooperative Grazing District, said the association was against prescribed burns for the district since February, when it remained dry. He said he believes the association was proven right after last week's burn caused the loss of fencing and forage that are vital to the producers.

The fire was no longer spreading Friday evening, according to the news release, but crews from Lemmon, Hettinger and throughout northwestern South Dakota, southwestern North Dakota and eastern Montana continued to work on a few interior hot spots, including a dumpsite close to the edge of the fire perimeter.

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

"You better hope that $1 million will be enough," Evridge said. "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."

He said people will have two years to file claims, but Hancock could not say how long the process will take after that.

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

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