U.S. Senator John Thune (R-South Dakota) today sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack calling on the Forest Service (FS) to accept responsibility for the April 3, 2013, Pautre Fire, and to approve damage claims from individuals who lost buildings, trees, bales of forage, and fences in the burn. Ranchers also suffered livestock losses from smoke inhalation from the fire, which burned out of control until April 7, 2013.
“Ranchers who suffered losses due to the Pautre Fire deserve to be treated fairly and receive timely reimbursements for the losses they suffered due to the Forest Service’s mistake,” said Thune. “The law holds the federal government to the same standard as a private citizen when found liable for negligence. It’s past time for the Forest Service to make full restitution for the harm it caused property owners due to negligent actions by its employees.”
On April 3, 2013, the FS conducted a prescribed burn located on the Grand River Ranger District of the Dakota Prairie Grassland. The burn was intended to cover 130 acres of dead crested wheatgrass, but due to the hot, dry, and windy conditions the fire quickly escalated out of control and consumed more than 10,000 acres of FS and private lands. The U.S. Drought Monitor, which tracks rainfall and drought conditions in the United States, showed northwest South Dakota at severe and extreme drought intensities on March 26, 2013. Intentionally starting a fire under these conditions for any reason would be considered risky and dangerous.
The Federal Tort Claims Act allows the ranchers who suffered losses in the Pautre Fire to file administrative claims up to two years following the burn. The FS has yet to publicly take responsibility for the Pautre Fire leaving these families with a great deal of uncertainty if their claims will ever be paid.
The text of the senator’s letter follows:
June 3, 2014
Secretary Tom Vilsack
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, D.C. 20250
Dear Secretary Vilsack:
On April 3, 2013, the U.S. Forest Service (FS) conducted a prescribed burn located southeast of Hettinger, North Dakota on the Grand River Ranger District of the Dakota Prairie Grassland. This prescribed burn was intended to cover 130 acres of dead crested wheatgrass; however, due to the hot, dry, and windy conditions the fire quickly escalated out of control and consumed more than 10,000 acres of FS and private lands.
This fire, known as the Pautre Fire, burned out of control until April 7, 2013. Along with the grass and rangeland that were destroyed, fences, bales of forage, buildings, and trees were also damaged and destroyed by this fire; and cattle confined to the smoke created by this fire suffered respiratory damage.
The FS decision to conduct the prescribed burn that day has been questioned by local farmers, ranchers, city and county government officials, and members of the South and North Dakota Congressional delegations. This prescribed burn was scheduled on an early spring day (April 3) in 2013 when temperatures were above normal, high winds were forecasted, and the preceding months experienced below average moisture.
Due to all the factors under consideration starting a prescribed burn on April 3, 2013 in the Grand River District of the Dakota Prairie Grassland can be viewed only as an act of extreme negligence by the FS. Accordingly, I respectfully request that the FS carefully review each Pautre Fire claim and either grant the claim as submitted or work diligently with the claimants to ensure they are fairly and timely reimbursed for the losses they suffered due to this fire.
I find it unacceptable for the FS to deny or take no action on these claims, or for the FS Office of General Counsel (OGC) to determine that the FS was not negligent in its actions to begin the prescribed burn on April 3, 2013. Weather and ground conditions that day were conducive to a high risk of a fire burning out of control, which the Pautre Fire ultimately did for several days.
I am aware that the Federal Tort Claims Act, generally holds the federal government liable in the same way as a private party for negligent acts committed by federal employees in the course of their employment. Also, according to the Federal Tort Claims Act the ranchers who suffered losses due to the Pautre Fire have two years to file an administrative claim to the FS. Less than a year remains before this window to file claims for the Pautre Fire closes.
I am writing to request that you direct the FS to publicly accept its responsibility due to the negligence it displayed in setting this fire under such dangerous burning conditions before June 30, 2014. Additionally, I call on the FS to either accept and make payments for these claims as submitted or fairly negotiate these claims within six months of receiving each claim.
Arbitrarily denying all Pautre Fire claims because of an OGC determination of lack of negligence or ignoring these claims for more than six months, which enables claimants to file a claim against the FS in federal district court under 28 U.S.C. 2675, is an unacceptable resolution.The FS must make full restitution for the harm it caused to those who suffered damages and losses due to the Pautre Fire and FS negligence.