- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - It’s been more than two years since a prescribed burn-turned-wildfire torched over 10,000 acres of land in the Dakotas, and ranchers are hoping they can soon recover the millions of dollars they estimate they’re owed.

South Dakota’s congressional delegation sent a letter Wednesday to U.S. Agriculture Department Secretary Tom Vilsack urging him to resolve and approve all “reasonable claims” filed in connection with the Pautre Fire of April 2013.

The fire began as a 130-acre controlled burn set by the U.S. Forest Service on the Grand River National Grasslands, but it eventually escaped containment, blackening nearly 16 square miles of private, federal and cooperative grazing land.

The fire destroyed fences, bales of forage, buildings and trees and caused respiratory problems in some cattle on grazing land between Hettinger, in southwestern North Dakota, and Lemmon, in northwestern South Dakota.

U.S. Sen. John Thune said Wednesday that there’s no evidence that damage claims from affected ranchers and landowners have begun to be processed by the federal government.

A federal law allows people up to two years following such an incident to submit claims. The government doesn’t start processing those claims until that two-year window is closed.

A spokesman at the U.S. Forest Service said he was researching the issue and couldn’t immediately comment.

Todd Campbell, the executive director of the Grand River Cooperative Grazing Association, said the fire has taken a toll on the group, which lost acres of grazing land and miles of fencing, and its members.

Originally, the association and its members filed claims totaling at least $11 million to $12 million, Campbell said. But that number has likely grown as individuals have updated their claims, he added.

“We’re struggling with the costs of rebuilding everything,” he said. “It’s a huge strain on our budgets.”

Thune introduced a bill in April that, in part, would expedite the claims process by requiring federal agencies to pay damages within 120 days of receiving a substantiated claim.

“They could be done a lot faster,” he said.

The bill was referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. No action has been taken so far, but Thune said he’s hopeful it can move forward in the future, possibly as an amendment elsewhere.

He brought the legislation in response to the Pautre Fire and the Cold Brook Fire, which was a prescribed burn at Wind Cave National Park that escaped containment in April.

The Cold Brook fire burned several thousand acres but never escaped the park boundaries.

The bill would also require federal agencies that want to set prescribed burns to first get approval from state and local fire officials.

Eric Allen, the National Park Service’s fire management officer for the northern great plains, said there’s already collaboration between federal, state and local officials. He said this week he was wary about giving a “right of veto” to other agencies.

But Thune said it’s a measure that could help prevent future losses.

“It makes sense on a lot of levels,” he said. “They ought to be talking to people on the ground.”

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