Wildland Firefighting at the Fort Pierre Ranger District


Fort Pierre, SD—Many people assume that a firefighter’s sole job is to put out fires; however, that is just the tip of the iceberg for the USDA Forest Service’s Fort Pierre Ranger District fire crew. While the primary duty for the fire crew and fire engine NE-691 (Nebraska-691) is wildland fire preparedness and suppression on public, local and private lands; the crew is heavily involved with national suppression support, community outreach, public education, and land management.

During an interview with Engine Captain Ryan Cumbow, he was asked to talk about how the fire crew supports national wildfire incidents.  Cumbow said “The Fort Pierre Engine NE-691 is available ‘to roll’ nationally to support wildland fire suppression efforts throughout the United States.” National support may include the engine and its crew, or individual firefighters may be dispatched as needed to support firefighting needs, Cumbow explained.  The most crucial part of their job is preparing for wildland fire suppression. Preparation includes ensuring equipment is operational, individual training and certifications are current, and that firefighters are equipped to handle whatever situation might arise.  Another aspect many people may not know about is the required physical training the fire crew does every day.  Physical training is very important for preparing firefighters for the strenuous duties they will endure on a wildfire, especially those incidents in mountainous regions.  Running, hiking, and weight training are key to being fire fit.

When asked about their community outreach duties Ryan Cumbow said, “We provide support to local Volunteer Fire Departments (VFDs) and they also support us. This is known as mutual aid and it provides valuable experience for their firefighters and offers training to VFD members and cooperators.” Cumbow went on to say that an important aspect of working with local VFDs is completing annual VFD agreements. These contractual arrangements allow the USDA Forest Service to pay the VFDs’ firefighters, along with other cooperators, when they support federal firefighting efforts on the Fort Pierre Ranger District.

Public education is an aspect the fire crew is heavily involved in. “Fire prevention and education is a service we provide to assist local VFDs and cooperators, as well as conducting community educational activities. This is especially important for the famous Fort Pierre 4th of July celebrations with NE-691 and Smokey Bear in the parade and the engine available for fire suppression if fireworks create an ignition,” said Cumbow. Noting that typically at least one firework-caused incident occurs on or near July 4th. The crew is actively involved in fire prevention week in October, spends significant time working with school-age students in classrooms and works with youth groups, such as 4-H or Scouts. “Outreach is always our goal. To provide our firefighting services to any aspect of wildland fire, whether it is training, talking to the public, or explaining the benefits of prescribed fire on USFS managed lands,” said Cumbow.

The fire crew spends a significant amount of time preparing for and conducting prescribed burns, also known as “Rx burns”, on the Fort Pierre National Grassland as part of their land management duties. The purpose of a prescribed burn is to reduce vegetative thatch, improve livestock forage and wildlife habitat quality, as well as reduce fuel loading.  Preparation activities for prescribed fire include drafting burn plans, acquiring additional firefighting resources, coordinating with the National Weather Service for spot weather forecasts, mowing burn lines, and securing the fire line when it comes time to burn. Not only does NE-691 conduct prescribed burn work on National Forest Systems lands, it is also available to assist other agencies and VFDs in preparing and conducting their own prescribed burns.

“While these are important aspects of the work we do, there is another significant part of our job known as ‘other duties as assigned,’ that includes road work, road signage, conducting fish and pond surveys, and supporting law enforcement as Forest Protection Officers,” said Cumbow.

Ryan Cumbow (Engine Captain), Tim Iron Thunder (Assistant Engine Captain), and Doug Gordon (Assistant Fire Engine Operator) have a combined experience of 47 years in firefighting, which makes them valuable members of the Fort Pierre Ranger District land management team.

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