Saturday, March 1, 2008

Fire Season Outlook for Black Hills

The Rapid City Journal has an article by Steve Miller that pretty well summarizes the wildland fire situation in South Dakota and the Black Hills. Here is an excerpt.
"According to (Joe) Lowe (coordinator of the South Dakota Wildland Fire Suppression Division), state fire meteorologist Randall Benson said the data indicate a fire season this year that could approach that of 2000, when more than a quarter-million acres burned in the state. That year included the 83,500-acre Jasper Fire.

This year, Lowe said he will recommend contracting for at least three single engine air tankers, commonly called SEATs.

He said the division this summer will have only one heavy helicopter available from the South Dakota National Guard. That is down from as many as four heavy helicopters from the Guard in past years, Lowe said. "We've depended heavily on the National Guard for type 1 helicopters," he said. "That's no longer the case because of deployments."

(Todd) Pechota (fire-management officer for the Black Hills National Forest) said the Black Hills National Forest will have the same amount of resources as it did last year, with one light helicopter, capable of carrying about 150 gallons of water; one heavy helicopter that can carry up to 1,000 gallons; 18 fire engines; three 10-member hand crews; the interagency Tatanka Hot Shot crew; and two bulldozers.
A government report earlier this month said Forest Service air tankers used to fight Western wildfires are potentially vulnerable to accidents. The agency owns 26 aircraft and leases 771 aircraft for firefighting. The Forest Service will require stricter inspections and maintenance on its leased aircraft.

Lowe said he didn't know if it will become more difficult to get additional air tankers here. But, he said, "Anytime that we lose any of the tools out of the wildland fire toolbox in extreme fire conditions, that puts a strain on things."

He also said it could become more difficult to hire the SEATs planes in the future. Pilots are finding it more lucrative to go back to crop-spraying operations, Lowe said.

He said his division's budget has been maintained. The division currently has 17 fire engines, two hand crews and a batch of equipment that includes eight command trailers, a mobile kitchen and a mobile supply cache.

Lowe said the average fire season nationally has grown by 78 days over the past 15 years.

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