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Wind Cave/Cold Brook Fire Good for the Black Hills?

The Wind Cave/Cold Brook prescribed burn-turned-wildfire caused a brief stretch of poor air quality in Rapid City on Tuesday. Hot Springs stayed smokier longer. (I check right now and find air quality is worse in Sioux Falls than in Rapid City.)

But Larry Kurtz turns his wonderful contrarianism on the Cold Brook fire and says the breakout burn is a net plus for the Southern Hills:

Despite some strong gusty winds the fire is 30% contained and consuming invasive cheatgrass at rates the previous human inhabitants of the Black Hills would have yawned.

600 years ago 20 million bison migrating north would be cropping those grasses ahead of Spring thunderstorms while people following them gathered dry dung to fuel campfires.

The Rocky Mountain Type II Interagency Incident Management Team ordered will ensure that structures are protected; and, the event will give way to greening conditions after light rain forecast for this weekend.

As the Black Hills fire risk increases, good on the US Park Service for bringing attention to a century of destructive fire suppression [Larry Kurtz, “Wind Cave Area Residents: Chill,” Interested Party, 2015.04.15].

In today’s sign of the Apocalypse, the mainstream press finds some agreement with Larry Kurtz:

[Wind Cave chief interpreter Tom] Farrell doesn’t look at this prescribed burn turned wildfire as a tragedy for the park.

“Obviously it wasn’t something we were planning to do but within a few months, it’s going to be really hard to tell that there was a fire here,” Farrell said.

He said the burn area will probably be some of the lushest in the park come June. He thinks it may actually be more attractive to visitors.

“So we actually expect a lot of wildlife to be in the southern part of the park as things green up,” Farrell said [Cindy Davis, “Unplanned Wildfire Not All Bad for Wind Cave,” KOTA-TV, 2015.04.15].

KELO's Kevin Woster catches a buffalo strolling nonchalantly through the Cold Brook burn area, 2014.04.14.
KELO’s Kevin Woster catches a buffalo strolling nonchalantly through the Cold Brook burn area, 2014.04.14.

Kevin Woster notes that park officials aimed the burn toward the entire of the park, minimizing the risk to private land and structures.

Kurtz links to Wildfire Today, whose post on the Cold Brook fire includes the Monday morning, April 13, official weather forecast on which Wind Cave National Park officials predicated the go-ahead for Monday’s prescribed burn: light and variable winds and “very low potential for large plume dominated fire growth.”

Still think the National Park Service made a mistake? Well, fire away….


  1. Paul Seamans 2015-04-16 07:37

    Fire is the best control there is for the non-native cheatgrasses. We’ll see all sorts of native plants show up in the burn area that were suppressed before.

  2. dallis 2015-04-16 07:51

    If cheatgrass was the problem we know that is brought on by mismanagement. There are other ways to manage cheatgrass than fire. I see fire as a last resort. My problem with these fires they set is the lies they tell the public. If they want to burn a quarter of the park down why don’t they say so. Instead of this “Oh it just got away” We here in Meade county live on pins and needles hoping any activity we do doesn’t cause a spark and set a fire and in Wind cave park they have to be just as dry and they go and purposely set a fire. Makes no sense.

  3. larry kurtz 2015-04-16 07:55

    A quarter inch of rain fell on the burn last night and Hot Springs has water standing on the roads. On the Nebraska Pine Ridge headed to a dry Santa Fe saying thanks for the plug, Cory.

  4. dallis 2015-04-16 07:58

    I would have to disagree with Paul Seamans. I have acquired two different ranches that both had cheatgrass problems and with proper grazing and use of livestock I have eliminated the cheatgrass on both places as problem. Watch a few Allan Savory videos on youtube.

  5. mike from iowa 2015-04-16 07:58

    I’m not a biologist and I don’t play one on tv,but, I know that cheat grass will self immolate just to get publicity in the papers when it hasn’t been burnt often enough to suit it’s depraved mind.

  6. Bob Newland 2015-04-16 08:12

    “its depraved mind,” not “it’s”

  7. mike from iowa 2015-04-16 08:16

    I keep telling youse guys I am the least educated poster. Need more proof? :)

  8. Curt 2015-04-16 09:52

    I side with Dallis on this topic. The RC Jrnl editorializes today that the timing of the prescribed burn ‘defies logic.’ Conditions are so dry currently that a citizen cannot obtain a permit for a campfire and Wind Cave deliberately sets 1000 acres ablaze. 4th-graders understand that fires interact with the atmosphere unpredictably, creating unstable air currents as they burn. Yet someone thought a 1000-acre fire could be contained and proceeded to do what no citizen would be allowed to do.
    I would not dispute the beneficial effects of fire and agree that it is a necessary land management tool. But if my campfire had ignited that wildfire, you can be sure the feds would be at my door with the bill for finally containing it – regardless of its beneficial effects.

  9. Bob Newland 2015-04-16 09:55

    Kinda like whether I shoot someone or a person with a badge shoots someone, isn’t it?

  10. Curt 2015-04-16 09:59

    Point: Mr Newland

  11. Daniel Buresh 2015-04-16 10:30

    A prescribed burn getting out of control is still better than a much worse uncontrolled fire if a prescribed burn is not performed. There is always the risk that prescribed burns will get out of control, but that risk must be taken if we are going to keep the fire danger risks within maintainable levels. The professionals know what they are doing. We have done prescribed burns twice in the past month, both of which had to be done by April 30th per federal guidelines. Out in the hills, prescribed burns are generally more for fire management. Many of the critics have no idea what they are talking about other than their nose is a little bothered by smoke. IF you want to burn stuff during dry times, go train with Coyote 1, purchase $5k in gear, and then you can play with the professionals.

  12. Curt 2015-04-16 10:35

    Seriously? ‘The professionals know what they’re doing’? Give me a break.

  13. Daniel Buresh 2015-04-16 10:41

    Yeah, we put our lives on line so you can feel safe behind a computer. We’ll be putting one of our own to rest on Sunday. Even when things go wrong, you god damn right they are professionals.

  14. Curt 2015-04-16 10:48

    Mr Buresh – Since you are apparently an authority on fire fighting, care to guess what the final cost of containing this wildfire will be?

  15. Daniel Buresh 2015-04-16 10:56

    My guess, $150/truck/hr, plus $25-45/hr per firefighter. Maintenance and Equipment will add some more on.

    Do you know what it costs to fight a fire when fuel grows in an unnaturally dry forest and a spark results in a completely uncontrolled fire 10x the size with multiple structure loss and possible loss of life?

  16. Curt 2015-04-16 11:14

    In other words, you don’t know the cost. In addition to the 100+ firefighters on the ground, several aircraft (at least one fixed-wing and two helicopters) were – probably still are – in use.
    No one is advocating for non-management of the fuels on the ground. I am simply saying – as the RC Jrnl said – the decision to light a 1000-acre fire under the conditions that existed on Monday – ‘defies logic.’

  17. Daniel Buresh 2015-04-16 11:31

    Who said “it defies logic” and what are their credentials? Frankly, very few people can even make such a statement and have credibility.

  18. Daniel Buresh 2015-04-16 11:33

    No, I don’t know the cost, but I know more about it than the average keyboard jockey criticizing what they don’t know.

  19. Paul Seamans 2015-04-16 11:48

    Dallis, I stand by my statement that fire is the best way to control cheatgrass. I would venture to say that most of the cheatgrass seed in the burn area has been destroyed by this fire. I also have brought back overgrazed range to excellent condition by judicious grazing plus I have a BS in Range Management and I have seen cheatgrass almost eliminated on rangeland after a fire. Fire is part of the rangeland/forest ecosystem and should be used as a management tool

  20. Nick Nemec 2015-04-16 12:25

    Cory, cheatgrass is an invasive, cool season, winter annual, eurasian species that is usually the first species to green up in the spring. As a winter annual it grows from seed each year sprouting in the fall, over wintering and going to seed the next year, much like winter wheat. If grazed early and hard enough that it doesn’t go to seed it can be controlled that way. Cattle can eat it OK but since it goes to seed by the middle of May it dries up much earlier than other species. The ripe, dried plant has very little nutritional value and the seeds are bearded and have a tendency to lodge in a grazing animal’s mouth causing an abscess.

  21. Nick Nemec 2015-04-16 12:28

    Nearly any plant can be controlled by properly managed grazing. But it takes time, fencing, and a grazer that’s easy to control, buffalo and elk aren’t easy to control.

  22. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-04-16 12:29

    Ah ha! So by itself, it’s bad for critters. And if it takes root, it crowds out other more nutritious grasses after mid-May. Does it have any place in providing a balanced grazing diet in early spring while bluestem grows up around it later, or is the trouble it cause greater harm than what little it would be worth in that niche?

  23. Paul Seamans 2015-04-16 12:30

    Good explanation Nick. Cheatgrass wasn’t seen in the Black Hills until after the 1874 Custer Expedition, probably brought in with the grain for the horses.

  24. Paul Seamans 2015-04-16 12:39

    Cory, even under heavy grazing to control cheatgrass it will still set seed even if only a couple of inches tall. It is a survivor. I can think of very few good things, if any, to say about cheatgrass other than the seeds do not survive a fire at the right time. The managers of the Wind Cave park know this, maybe other people not so much.

  25. mike from iowa 2015-04-16 12:42

    Cheat grass is the botanical equivalent of a wingnut running around looking for answers to problems that don’t exist. It dries up early,has virtually zero nutrition and burns like a whimsical wingnut passing legislation to defund the ACA. Cheat is the victim in all this. Everybody hates it,nobody like it,I guess it will go eat worms.

  26. Curt 2015-04-16 14:33

    The issue is that the Coolidge Crk burn was 16 acres. A fire that size might be manageable, and is also in an area vastly different than the area where they planned to burn 1000 acres. Burning an area 1000 acres in size may be difficult to fathom. Consider that a 40-acre fire is 1/4 mile x 1/4 mile. Perhaps that size might be controllable. Now multiply that fire by 25. That’s 1000 acres. As noted above, fires behave erratically and unpredictably – larger fires even more so. If the Park Svc wanted to burn the remainder of the area into which the fire spread, they should have said so. The fact is that they never would have gotten permission to do that, and should not have been allowed to proceed with the 1000-acre burn.
    Fire is a necessary tool, but not always the wise and prudent choice.

  27. Roger Cornelius 2015-04-16 14:33

    In Rapid City fire rings and charcoal fires are either banned or discouraged when the fire levels are high. In other words any use of fire from cigarettes to the BQ can cause a major fire and result in someone getting a big bill from the government for containing the fire.
    Alas, the federal government is the exception to the rule, they can plan and have a controlled burn and let it get out of control when John Doe can’t cook a hamburger in his own backyard.

  28. Roger Cornelius 2015-04-16 14:39

    Curt is right about the cost of the Cold Brook fire, the feds and state are using up valuable resources that will be needed when there is a fire.
    Every year we have this discussion about having enough money for the fire season and every year the state has to ask President Obama for another handout.

  29. Deb Geelsdottir 2015-04-16 23:18

    This is hilarious!

    “Cheat grass is the botanical equivalent of a wingnut running around looking for answers to problems that don’t exist.”

    Thanks Mike.

  30. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-04-17 05:49

    Hmm… how long can controlled burns wait? They have a valid ecological purpose; how much harm comes from not burning?

  31. Bill Dithmer 2015-04-17 06:42

    I have spent a thousand hours in the saddle fighting the cheat. We had Hereford cattle so they were a little more susceptible to all the things cheatgrass would do. You were constantly looking for pinkeye, abscesses, caused by the cheat, and hoof rot. In the summer we would ride all our pastures three days a week, if you got behind you never caught up.

    We would ride to the south end of the place about four miles, and work our way home. If the pinkeye wasnt to bad or the abscess hadn’t progressed far enough, we just moved the critter home to treat it. But if they were already off by themselves fighting flies or laying down, we would shake a loop out and doctor right there.

    You could go for weeks without a single problem, then the cheatgrass would dry out and you’d be real busy for a while.

    The fastest way that I know to control cheat is by grazing goats. They like it and seem to have something in their systems that kill the seed. I like goats, but they need a baby setter to survive the yotes so unless you want hire a man that herds goats it was impractical.

    Like it or not fire is the best tool for cheatgrass, and for what ailments the Black Hills. It looks to me like the hills need to loose 80% of the trees to get to where they were a hundred years ago. With mother nature you can pay a little now or a lot latter. It looks like the bill has come due.

    The Blindman

  32. larry kurtz 2015-04-17 07:13

    500 acres of cheatgrass just burned north of Wall: not even close to enough fire.

    Elemental carbon produced by fire, especially wildland fire, sequestered in aquifer recharges filters contaminants from essential water supplies: a practice long-forgotten by profit-driven livestock producers sucking the federal tit.

    Corridors leased from landowners could connect public grounds like the Comanche, the Pawnee, the Oglala, the Buffalo Gap and Ft. Pierre National Grasslands with tribal lands and national forests with the upper Missouri River basin could heal some of the destruction caused by the anthropocene.

    Bison, not cattle, will save the High Plains from the European descendants who have decimated the West in the last two hundred years.

    The discussion among those of us driving the rewilding of the basin wonder whether the ecosystems should look like they did before the Clovis People began altering it 12,000 years ago or before humans even got to the continent.

  33. Curt 2015-04-17 10:14

    Two questions: (1) Blindman Bill – If the goal is to return the Hills to conditions present 100 yrs ago, does that mean we can start removing the billboards as well? (2) Is anyone surprised that Kurtz apparently would not mind if the whole state burned up?

  34. Curt 2015-04-17 10:26

    Mr Kurtz – Please let us know if/when you catch the s-o-b who poops in your Cheerios everyday.

  35. larry kurtz 2015-04-17 10:46

    Those earth haters know who they are, they read my blogs religiously: from governors to members of Congress. Why else would i blog for free if it’s not to influence US policy and politics?

  36. mike from iowa 2015-04-17 12:23

    Conditions were,are and always will be volatile in the Middle East when wingnuts decided an unprescribed burn would do the world good. As predicted by rational people,the burn escaped containment and lit up the whole,freakin’ region. Afterall was done,it was discovered that the object of the burn had been effectively contained to one small region and kept other noxious bodies out of that region. Not anymore.

    Humblest apologies for straying so far afield.(pun intended)

  37. Curt 2015-04-17 12:32

    Mssrs Kurtz, Gabbert, and Thune: The cause of the wildfire (the runaway prescribed burn) is quite obvious – someone lacked the sense not to start a 1000-acre blaze when tinder-dry conditions prevailed and were widely predicted to worsen within hours.
    Sometimes it’s just not that complicated.

  38. larry kurtz 2015-04-17 12:38

    Or someone had the balls to look at the forecast to know that rain was on the way.

  39. larry kurtz 2015-04-17 13:02

    On Thursday fire managers should have put the driptorch to every parcel of public land in a triangle with points at Wright, Wyoming; Bismarck, North Dakota and Brush, Colorado.

  40. Daniel Buresh 2015-04-17 13:07

    Curt, there you go again acting like you are qualified to determine when and where a burn takes place. Dry conditions rarely stop a prescribed burn from happening. It depends more on the weather. If anything, dry conditions make prescribed burns more important so that a much larger uncontrolled fire doesn’t occur. The weather on the day of the fire was perfect for a controlled burn. 7-10 mph winds is just right. Even in the best of conditions, there is a chance it can get away. Unless it is completely negligent, Thune is way out of line with his analysis. Much like you, he has no idea how to determine when it is the right time to burn.

  41. Bill Dithmer 2015-04-17 13:32

    Curt, I wont comment on the billboards except to say they were entertaining on the long road to Rapid when I was little.

    The hills are past bringing them back to what they were 100 years ago, but that doesnt mean you shouldnt try.

    Even in my short lifetime there are creeks and springs in the hills that are no more because of the trees. Those growing things suck up a lot of water. The thick growth crowds out the water sipping trees that used to be there and replaces them with water whores. The water that used to recharge both major and minor natural storage in the earth never sees that water anymore because the trees use so much that none is left.

    The records that have to do with hydrology says that the water that will be needed in western SD just to cover basic needs will be harder an harder to get. Just in the last eight year drought we saw a drop in static water levels in wells around us by about a foot. Now we didnt have many trees around us but the end result would be the same as if we did.

    Look at it like this. Lets say you have a hundred gal water tank. That much drinking water would last one person for a long time. Now hook a long hose to that tank with hundreds of faucets on it with you at the very end. Now add ten thousand people that would get to use that water before you, at the end of the hose got a drink. That is whats happening in the southwest now. We’ll know that they are serious about conservation when they stop pumping water on gulf courses.

    while I’m being pissy here, why do we continue to stock non native species like trout in SD waters? Shouldnt the state fish be a sucker?

    The Blindman

  42. mike from iowa 2015-04-18 07:19

    So DB are you suggesting the importance value of the burn trumps common sense in determining the where and when of prescribed burns?

  43. Daniel Buresh 2015-04-18 11:27

    Mike, I am saying that there is no indication that this was a bad time to do a prescribed burn and if the professionals determined it was needed, so be it. A quick wind direction change can screw things up even if the conditions are completely perfect. Losing control of a fire is not necessarily a punishable sign of negligence, imo. If they started it in extremely high winds, that would be a different story. Sometimes accidents happen, but I also know that isn’t always the case. I’m not going to let people who know nothing about it simply criticize it because they had to put up with smoke or they just don’t like not being able to the things the trained professionals do.

  44. jerry 2015-04-18 12:48

    The wind can change while it is changing. Thought we had the wind figured one time and dropped a tree. While on the last part of the cut, the wind changed abruptly, the cut tree fell on the tree we were wanting to keep and also took out power to the out buildings. Happened so fast, I did not have time to cuss until it was too late.

  45. Paul Seamans 2015-04-18 13:06

    I’ve had enough burns get away from me that I have changed my nickname to “lightning”. When asked how the fire started I reply that it must have been lightning.

  46. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-04-18 17:30

    When I can get Dan to say Thune is way out of line, I’m willing to run with that line all month long. It sounds as if we could say that if the conditions Monday weren’t good enough for a controlled burn, then it would almost never be a good day to burn.

    Curious: if there was a problem, was it just size? Could the Park Service have done 10 100-acre burns instead? Would that have entailed a less efficient dispatch of research, requiring firefighters to be on duty ten separate days instead of this one week of one big burn?

  47. larry kurtz 2015-04-18 18:01

    Wind Cave has been planning this burn for at least a year and of course the Park Service will eat the costs of expanding the scope of the fire.

    Tom Farrell, the park’s chief of interpretation, says the park has performed thousands of prescribed burns over the past decades and successfully burned millions of acres to prevent more catastrophic wildfires. He says the park service will review what happened and will share its findings with the state’s congressional delegation.

  48. larry kurtz 2015-04-18 18:03

    Fire managers would much rather burn under April conditions than in August.

  49. Daniel Buresh 2015-04-21 10:45

    “It sounds as if we could say that if the conditions Monday weren’t good enough for a controlled burn, then it would almost never be a good day to burn.”

    Exactly, instead we have a bunch of arm chair quarterbacks who seem to think that just because it is dry that we shouldn’t perform prescribed burns. They haven’t the slightest idea of what they are talking about.

  50. Bill Dithmer 2015-04-21 17:05

    Let me make this as clear as I can, John Thune doesnt know shit about fire, the reasons for a controlled burn, or why fire is the only hope for saving an ecco system that has been managed for people rather then the system for over a hundred years. Burning that fuel now means less can burn in August and September. The hills are headed for a big fire if people dont start clearing brush and trees from around their homes.

    But lets not just jump on John when we also have Mike Rounds to talk about. Mike doesnt know shit about building in a flood plain.

    John wouldnt have known to look into this fire thing if a rich donner hadn’t told him they didnt like the way things are run. And the only reason Cardboard Mike knows anything about floods is because he got his feet wet north of Ft Pierre.

    Lets face it, the knowledge either one of SDs senators has in either one of these subjects could fit in the end of a condom with room to spare.

    Oh ya while I’m here. The last original thought that John Thune had was in high school when he was thinking about a crossover before he lowered his left shoulder and cleared out space for his jump shot. And now he’s a senator!

    Dumb and dumber, take your pick as to who is what.

    The Blindman

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