Senator John Thune (R-S.D.) today sent a letter to the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Tom Tidwell, calling for the agency to take immediate action to reimburse landowners for the recent grassland fire in Perkins County.
On April 3, 2013, the U.S. Forest Service lost control of a controlled burn that resulted in up to 14,000 acres of damaged pasture and farmland in Perkins County, South Dakota, which has been experiencing prolonged drought conditions. Local landowners and fire crews responded to the blaze, which was fully contained by Sunday, April 7.
“The damage caused by the U.S. Forest Service is inexcusable,” said Thune. “It could take years for the burnt pastures and farmland to recover, and in the past, landowners have to wait years before being reimbursed. I am calling on the Forest Service to take immediate action to assess the damage, provide landowners a timely opportunity to apply for reimbursement, and ensure that ranchers are made whole as soon as possible. Additionally, I am asking the Forest Service to review its controlled burn policies during drought conditions to prevent future grassland fires.”
The text of the Senator’s letter follows:
April 8, 2013
Mr. Tom Tidwell
Chief, U.S. Forest Service
Sidney R. Yates Building
201 14th Street, SW, 4th Floor
Washington, DC 20250
Dear Chief Tidwell:
On April 3, a U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service) prescribed burn intended to cover 135 acres near the South Dakota and North Dakota border burned out of control resulting in up to 14,000 acres of fire-damaged land known as the Pautre Fire, which included privately owned hay land, pasture land, harvested hay, fences, at least one building, and personal vehicles.
The purpose of this letter is to very strongly urge that the Forest Service take immediate action to reimburse all who lost private property as a result of this ill-advised controlled burn, for which the Forest Service has publicly taken responsibility. According to a spokeswoman for the Forest Service who commented in an article in the April 5 Rapid City Journal, “We did light it and it did get away. And we plan to pay for damages that we caused.”
The public meeting held by the Forest Service on April 6 at the North Dakota State University Research Extension Center in Hettinger, North Dakota was an important first step in making ranchers aware of the Forest Service reimbursement process and to answer questions from those who were impacted by the Pautre Fire. However, the most urgent need is for timely payment from the Forest Service for private property losses due to this fire, because the ranchers who suffered losses in this fire had already experienced devastating pasture and feed losses due to the 2012 drought.
Burned up and destroyed pasture acres, hay and alfalfa stacks and bales, fences, buildings and vehicles can all be easily and immediately quantified and their loss values accurately assessed, which means there should be no delay by the Forest Service in providing payments to the impacted producers for their losses due to the Forest Service-started Pautre Fire.
In addition to immediate reimbursement for losses due to the Pautre Fire, I am also requesting that the Forest Service review and report to me the response and reimbursement status of payments to ranchers who suffered losses due to 2012 fire near Edgemont, South Dakota, which the Forest Service also started.
Local ranchers warned Forest Service personnel that ongoing severe drought conditions, potential for high winds, and higher-than-normal temperatures all meant that starting a prescribed burn on April 3 would be a very risky undertaking. The Forest Service personnel inexcusably disregarded these warnings and went ahead with the prescribed burn. Accordingly, I am requesting that the Forest Service inform me of its prescribed burn policy when drought conditions are present, as was the case with the April 3 prescribed burn, which resulted in the devastating Pautre Fire; and provide me with information regarding all prescribed burns scheduled in South Dakota for the next 30 days.
With the strike of a match, the livelihoods and the future of ranchers who suffered losses in the Pautre Fire were changed, and a doubtful outlook for 2013 became even more uncertain due to lost pastures, hay, and fences. I fully expect the Forest Service to take every available action to provide quick, fair, and certain reimbursement to these ranchers. I respectfully request that full reimbursement be made no later than 30 days from the date of loss, while allowing additional time for producers to apply for losses beyond this period as necessary.
Please respond to this letter with answers to my questions and requested information no later than April 15, 2013.
Senator John Thune