Senator John ThuneOne of South Dakota's greatest natural resources is the beautiful and vast forests that draw visitors from all over the nation. However, this natural resource is constantly threatened by the devastating effects of dry conditions and wildfires.
Already this summer we have seen the destructive results of the Alabaugh Canyon Fire that resulted in one death, and more than 10,000 acres and 35 homes going up in smoke. As the result of years of drought, a single lightning strike can turn a forest into a blazing inferno. Like any great resource, we must take steps to protect our forests.
While our firefighters and emergency response personnel in South Dakota are some of the most highly skilled in the country, there are many times when they could use the assistance of their colleagues from neighboring states. There are instances when the men and woman fighting these fires are spread too thin when the wildfires are too big, move too fast and are spread out over vast distances. Under these circumstances it makes sense to share firefighting resources with neighboring states, but there are federal rules that restrict the sharing and deployment of such reinforcements.
Earlier this year, Governor Rounds requested federal action to authorize the formation of fire compacts with neighboring states. I was happy to assist and in March, I introduced bipartisan legislation (S.975) supported by Senators from neighboring states to allow South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado to enter into an agreement to share resources and aid each other in fighting forest fires, which can often exceed the resources of any one state.
Then a few weeks ago, while on the ground to assess the devastating destruction of the recent Alabaugh Canyon fire, Joe Lowe, who serves as South Dakota's Wildland Fire Coordinator, stressed to me that my Fire Compact bill was his number one priority.
I returned to the Senate the next day and by the end of the week was able to get my legislation passed in the Senate by unanimous consent. Since the Senate passed this important bill, I have reached out to House Leadership and Representative Herseth Sandlin to urge the House of Representatives to pass my bill without delay, so the president can sign it into law and our firefighters will be better prepared to fight the next wildfire.
Just last year in South Dakota, there were more than 2,000 wildland fires that caused damage to more than 230,000 acres of land. The state's wildfire meteorologist, Randall Benson, told me that conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean are similar to those in 1988, when the Galena Fire burned 16,788 acres in Custer State Park and the Westberry Trails Fire near Rapid City burned 14 homes and nearly 4,000 acres. The urgent need for this legislation is very real, and would greatly assist our state in fighting fires and protecting human life and property from being destroyed.
South Dakota's natural beauty sometimes comes at a price, but my legislation gives our firefighters and those in other states the resources to contain wildfires faster and limit the destruction they cause. I look forward to the House of Representatives passing my bill as soon as possible, so our state is better prepared to face the danger threatening our forests this year and in the years to come.