WASHINGTON, D.C.– U.S. Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) today expressed their frustration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Forest Service (FS), and Office of General Counsel’s (OGC) refusal to determine that FS employees were negligent when they started a prescribed burn in April 2013, which due to extremely dry and windy conditions, burned out of control. The devastating Pautre fire consumed 16,000 acres of standing grass on public and private pasture land and damaged or destroyed fences, bales of forage, buildings, and trees.
As a result of USDA’s refusal to determine negligence, all Pautre fire claims will be denied by FS. However, claimants may file suit against the federal government in U.S. district court within six months of the date they received their determination letters.
“I’m disappointed that the USDA has refused to acknowledge negligence and accept responsibility for the out-of-control Pautre fire that had such a devastating impact on property in northern South Dakota,” said Thune. “USDA’s denial leaves many South Dakota farmers and ranchers – who have already waited more than two years for a USDA decision – with the inability to have their claims resolved any time soon. We must prevent situations like these from occurring in the future, which is why I’ve introduced the Prescribed Burn Approval Act of 2015 that would require a federal agency to timely pay for losses that result from an out-of-control fire that it starts.”
“The impact of the Pautre fire will be felt by South Dakotans for many years to come,” said Rounds. “I am surprised that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, and Office of General Counsel have denied responsibility and relief to the South Dakota farmers and ranchers affected by the fire. It is my hope that South Dakotans will still be able to recover their losses through other legal avenues available to them.”
“I have been disappointed by the federal government’s snail-paced decision-making process over the last 26 months, but the USDA’s refusal to take responsibility for the Pautre Fire damages is unbelievable,” said Noem. “Whether the USDA admits it or not, South Dakota farmers and ranchers lost thousands of dollars’ worth of fences, buildings, bales, tree rows, and more as a result of the federal government’s actions. We must make sure disasters like this are prevented in the future, but that is going to require the federal government to admit to and reconcile previous mistakes.”
Earlier this month, the delegation wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urging the USDA, FS, and OGC to determine negligence and accept responsibility for the fire so victims’ claims could be processed.
The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) provides claimants two years from the date of an incident to submit claims against the government. The FTCA generally holds the federal government liable when federal employees commit acts of negligence in the course of their employment.
Thune’s legislation, which was introduced earlier this year, is designed to help prevent reckless prescribed burns, similar to the Pautre and Cold Brook fires. The legislation would require appropriate collaboration between federal and local officials before initiating a prescribed burn on federal lands when fire danger is high.