Will we see another Jasper Fire someday?

Charity Wessel

The Jasper Fire was one of the topics discussed last week at the annual Dakotas Society of American Foresters conference.
The conference agenda featured several talks about best ways to create healthy, resilient forests and how to reduce the threat of devastating fire and insects.
Todd Pechota, retired forest fire management officer for the Black Hills National Forest, discussed the collaborative wildland firefighting efforts during the Jasper Fire.
The Jasper Fire began Aug. 24, 2000, and burned 83,508 acres — the largest recorded forest fire in South Dakota history.
Pechota’s talk took place on Mud Springs Road, Forest Service Road 282, a spot where three fire engines were entrapped by surrounding wildfire during the Jasper Fire.
Pechota was on scene for the Jasper Fire and said it’s his opinion “that there will be another Jasper Fire. I’m 100 percent convinced on it,” he said.
Pechota also said he feels a forest fire the size of Jasper will “probably be in September or the spring, not the months of June through August.” Citing several reasons for his logic about why we’ll see another Jasper Fire, his main point was that there are “a fraction of resources available in summer,” he said.
Pechota also provided a historical perspective of the Jasper Fire that included a reminder that despite the Hell Canyon area’s “April 2000 blizzard of two and a half feet of snow, that summer’s hot and dry conditions set a deteriorating stage for, first, the July 2000 fire near Hot Springs that burned 7,000 acres, and then the Jasper Fire,” Pechota said.
Pechota further clarified that the number of fire starts in the Hell Canyon area in the year 2000 jumped from a yearly average of 55 to 1,000 fire starts that year.
Another reason Pechota cited for why he feels there will be another Jasper Fire is related to the cause behind this specific forest fire.
There are theories circulating in Forest Service circles, and online, that the Jasper Fire was caused by lightning. However, Janice Stevenson, the convicted Jasper arsonist, was sentenced in 2001 to 25 years in prison for dropping a match on Hwy. 16 near Jasper Cave.
Stevenson told Judge Merton Tice in her sentencing hearing that she “didn’t know it (the fire) would go that far.”
Pechota noted in his talk that Stevenson could’ve used a lighter to light her cigarette, and “she could’ve stepped on the ignited vegetation but she chose not to stop it. She got in her car and left,” he said.
Pechota also discussed the pros and cons of available firefighting resources the day of the Jasper Fire.
“Elk and Bear Mountain both reported the fire that day and the dispatched crews arrived 22 minutes after detection, a good on-scene time for an entirely volunteer force,” he said.
“We went after it very aggressively and despite people’s best efforts and plans, we were unsuccessful that first day.” The Jasper Fire continued to burn day and night, and the fire spread to thousands of acres.
Pechota said he made countless phone calls and went “up the chain to finally receive priority” and received a larger wildfire fighting team. As the Jasper Fire spread northeast to the Lightning Creek area, the wildland firefighters and rain helped to finally, fully contain it — seven days and 83,000 burnt acres later.
An additional reason Pechota cited for why he feels another Jasper Fire will happen is because of the rapidity of ground fires.
Pechota said using all their resources that first day of the Jasper Fire, the “average burn spread rate was seven acres a minute – a bulldozer can’t go that fast,” he said.
Fire behavior analysts measured the Jasper Fire’s burn rate and they saw an “increase to 100 acres a minute – 6,000 acres an hour — that’s 48,000 acres a day,” Pechota said.
At the foresters conference, Pechota and Dr. Patricia Fornwalt also discussed more of the hows and whys behind the Jasper Fire. They noted that although the Forest Service treats acres of tree aggregates, all forest growth can’t be managed and “when you get these extremes, it boils down to the persistence of the event,” Pechota said.
“My perception and my opinion is that it comes down to persistence. For the Black Hills area, the average time to contain a large fire is five to seven days, and we contained this 84,000 acre fire in seven days,” Pechota said.
The professional foresters conference also discussed the Legion Lake Fire and its impacts and causes. Although this area of the Hills also follows prescribed fire recommendations and treatment protocol, the Legion Lake Fire occurred in December 2017 and “three days of wind events” increased its burn rate as it scorched 53,000 acres.
Yet, Fornwalt and other speakers at the conference reiterated how landowners should continue to seek out professional foresters for advice about the trees on their property.
The benefit of a forester goes beyond woodland conservation or potential income — their pre-fire advice can mean the difference in achieving any forest preservation post-fire.
The conference also discussed recent prairie fires in Nebraska and the forced evacuations there returned an account of one anonymous homeowner who described their experience with the Forest Service’s advocacy:
“Through all the smoke, we saw a federal firefighter  watching hot spots at our fence line and beyond, and they thanked us for our thinning efforts to effectively make a perimeter.
“Forest service to us homeowners has proven an invaluable aid. We can’t thank you enough for your education and straight-forward application regarding your program; it proved itself as we still have a viable property with trees.”

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