Should we play with fire?
Published: Thursday, March 28th, 2013
It’s April in Custer County, which means the temperatures are rising, as are worries about the fire season, which seemingly begins earlier and earlier every year. Last year at this time, a fire broke out in Custer State Park and burned a few hundred acres before being contained. It was the first fire during a furious fire season in the area that produced The Myrtle Fire near Pringle and led to virtually a summer-long ban on fires in the county, including campfires and fire pits, even in town.
In the past few weeks, county emergency management director Mike Carter told the county commission that fire conditions were worse than this time last year (albeit it before last week’s snowstorm), and the city is looking to revise its burning ordinance, having addressed it at its most recent meeting.
An interesting quote came out of the meeting, however, when Mayor Gary Lipp questioned whether the fire danger had been exaggerated last summer. Those who lived near the Myrtle Fire area, which was caused by a Forest Service blade hitting a rock while doing road maintenance, may beg to differ. Lipp brought up a valid point, however. In an area where tourism is the life blood of most, a large forest fire—or a series of them—could be catastrophic. More importantly, with all of the people who live in the forest in the area, a large forest fire could mean the destruction of many, many homes, or worse yet, the loss of life. So, the question is, where do we draw the line on fire bans?
There are negatives to fire bans. Many people don’t want to camp if they cannot have a camp fire, as it is part of the camping experience. Some people in the area depend on selling firewood for camp fires, and lost a great deal of money when strict fire bans were put in place. Other businesses lose a great deal of revenue when there are fire bans, because they aren’t selling firewood and all of the other items (hot dogs, marshmallows, etc.) that come with camp fires. Some visitors will bypass the area altogether when they hear of “fire bans,” for fear of a fire starting or getting caught up in such an event.
There is no doubt we are in the grips of another drought, similar, and maybe even worse, than the one we experienced a decade ago. After several years of good precipitation, the drought cycle started again a year or two ago, and doesn’t look like it’s going to let us go any time soon. The ground will get dry, reservoirs, lakes and stock dams will dry up and forests will be ripe for a possible catastrophic fire.
While we must always err on the side of caution, we can’t get carried away with preemptive and overreaching fire bans. While we don’t want the forests to burn down and take property, and in a worse case scenario, a town or two with it, we also don’t want to slap down major fire bans at the beginning of every summer and leave them in place the entire summer. Word of that reputation will begin to spread and that will be destructive to the area as well.
God willing, we will get an ample amount of precipitation this spring and throughout the summer and the fire ban discussion will become a moot point. That doesn’t look like it’s going to be the case however, so we must be vigilant, but not knee-jerk. Hopefully, we can strike a balance that provides the protection we need while still allowing visitors the experience they come to expect when they visit the Black Hills.
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