Editor’s note: Eric O’Connor is a Lieutenant with the Rapid City Fire Department’s Wildfire Mitigation program. His work involves developing a prescribed fire program for the Department and providing the community with resources to understand prescribed fire as a landscape treatment. In this blog, Eric shares reflections on a recent prescribed burning project, Promise Rx, that resulted in successful outcomes for both the landscape and the community.
Educating your neighborhood on the importance of living in a fire-adapted community comes easy for many of us. It is a passion of ours that incorporates public safety, forest health, increased property values, improved wildlife habitat, and many other “feel good” traits. Some property owners get a little nervous when we start talking about chainsaws, cutting down trees, etc. Simply adjusting our language to different terminology such as, “we can help clean up the land” instead of “we’re prescription thinning” can get the images of a clear-cut forest out of a property owner’s mind and open them up to building an ongoing relationship. Sharing visual aids and hands-on visits of treatment areas also help us portray what our goals are and why they are so important.
A Legacy Created
More than 10 years ago, Rapid City Fire Department’s Lieutenant Tim Weaver developed a wildfire mitigation project in Rapid City, SD that would grow to become a nationally recognized program. Tim became the WUI resident’s best friend. With his practical, charismatic approach to helping homeowners maintain a safer and healthier landscape, the program quickly grew (like wildfire, of course). By offering funding assistance, dozens of HOA presentations, city council discussions, and countless one-on-one assessments with property owners, Rapid City’s Survivable Space Initiative became a major part of our community. The program excelled at thinning Rapid City’s ponderosa pine forests, removing juniper bushes and other flammable vegetation from residential landscapes, and promoting fire-resistive building construction within WUI neighborhoods.
Through his personal experience and testimonies from other FAC Net partners, Tim recognized the importance of maintaining the sustainability of this program with the reintroduction of fire to our landscape. Mechanical timber treatments were the first step into a bigger plan.
Nearly 75% of Rapid City and the surrounding communities are considered wildland-urban interface. Rapid City is seated at the eastern foothills of the Black Hills National Forest. It remains one of the top 10 at-risk firesheds in the USFS Region 2. Management of this landscape has been no easy task, factoring in drastic beetle-kill, urban sprawl, and timber industry fluctuations. Photos of the Black Hills area from early settlement times paint us a much different picture. It doesn’t take long to realize that our home is a fire-dependent landscape. As with so many other areas in the west, fire suppression has helped us create our own time bomb. Land managers like all of us are now tasked with defusing that bomb, with the extra challenge of working around homes and other resources between the detonators and charges. Mechanical treatments and logging get us closer to the solution, but the reintroduction of fire to the landscape is the next ingredient to success.
The Promise Rx Project
This spring we were able to complete four small burn units within the Promise Rx project area. Appropriately named, the project area sits adjacent to Promise Road and SD Hwy 16, primarily on city-owned property near Fire Station 6. This location was chosen for many reasons. We felt that it was important to lead by example managing our own city lands, as we tell others to do the same. City land also presented a more comfortable place to get our feet wet. The burn project area’s ponderosa pine had been mechanically thinned in 2014 by our own Hay Camp Fuels Crew, a crew hosted through the Rapid City Fire Department, partnered with Rapid City Parks and Recreation, and funded by the Bureau of Land Management. The collaborative-effort crew has been a great success and an integral part of our Wildfire Mitigation program, returning military veterans to the local workforce. The crew now completes dozens of projects in our community each year, by thinning, prescribed fire, public education, and fire suppression.
One of the most significant challenges land managers face is convincing the public and your administration that lighting a fire by your own hand is worth the risk. In the past, our organization has utilized wildfire events to reduce surface fuels, if and when they happen. I respect the concept, and in some situations we have had some success with those applications. It allows for some positive outcomes, without the attention that prescribed fire draws. However, wildfires are rarely timed appropriately. Conditions are too windy, too dry, too wet, poor smoke dispersal, wrong location, inadequate resources and staffing – the list goes on. Successful prescribed fire takes significant planning, preparation, and favorable conditions to meet the desired objectives. Prescribed fire is so much deeper than just putting smoke in the air and turning the ground black. Removing the right amount of surface fuels, reducing invasive plant species, stimulating serotinous germination, and even providing for training and education all need to be planned and implemented correctly to achieve success. That perceived “unwanted attention” drawn by prescribed fire can be your best tool for public education.
Keep the Right Amount of Smoke in the Air
Although the Promise Rx project is relatively small, it was a monumental step forward in developing prescribed fire within our Wildfire Mitigation program. It is imperative that we keep forward momentum before the successes are forgotten to other matters within our organization. We are challenged each day by staffing shortages, increased emergency call volume, budget restrictions, and a multitude of other trials.The high-risk, low-frequency events such as catastrophic wildfire sometimes take a back seat when it comes time to prioritize. The public, along with agency administrators, can lose interest in wildland fire, especially in slower fire years. It is our responsibility to constantly pursue fuels mitigation treatments, public education, and promote fire-resistive building materials and landscaping, no matter what time of year it is, and whether it is raining or a Red Flag Warning day. Last year, the Rapid City area experienced two significant, shoulder-season wildfires that directly impacted WUI neighborhoods. A combination of efficient and effective suppression efforts, paired with adept mechanical fuels treatments greatly reduced the impacts of both fires, and potentially prevented large-scale disasters.
Proving success to your leadership and the public comes with transparency. Communication is key, when it comes to open discussion with administrative staff, air-quality officials, and anyone else affected by your burn. Working with the media to help tell your story produces the message you want to be heard. When done correctly, burning small, burning often builds confidence in your program and produces quantifiable achievements. Trust, confidence, and support for your program will grow as success continues. Monitoring before, during, and after the burn at Promise will allow us to build trends and adjust factors for future burns as needed. We have several new burn plans being written for locations throughout our community, slated for the coming seasons. Starting small, our goal is to host a mini-TREX (prescribed fire training exchange) in the coming year, cooperating with neighboring agencies including local volunteer fire departments, state, and federal resources. The Black Hills area could, someday, host a full TREX event working with multiple agencies and fuel types. Supported by the FAC Net, our participation in the 2021 Flagstaff TREX reignited the reality of how a successful burn program can be sustained by municipal organizations. We look forward to getting more acres treated and seeing where the possibilities will take us next.