Fire expert: Mount Rushmore fireworks show ‘ill-advised’ due to dry conditions and high fire risk

Abnormally dry conditions and a persistent risk of summer wildfires in the Black Hills of South Dakota make the fireworks display planned for July 3 at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial an unnecessary, potentially devastating and expensive event, according to one fire expert with intimate knowledge of the region.

Bill Gabbert, former fire management officer for Mount Rushmore and six other national parks in the region, said the controversial fireworks show that could attract 7,500 people, possibly including President Donald Trump, would be “ill advised” even when conditions are not as dry as they are now.

“Burning debris, the burning embers and unexploded shells fall into a ponderosa pine forest and ponderosa pine is extremely flammable,” said Gabbert. “Shooting fireworks over a ponderosa pine forest, or any flammable vegetation, is ill advised and should not be done. Period.”

In April and May of 2020, the Black Hills fell 30% to 50% short of moisture compared to the long-term precipitation average for the region. Long range forecasts for June indicate that hotter and drier-than-average conditions will continue until July. On June 4, the U.S. Drought Monitor labeled nearly all of southwestern South Dakota, including most of the Black Hills, as “abnormally dry.”

Such dry conditions have historically been a driving force behind increased fire activity in the region, said Darren Clabo, South Dakota state wildfire meteorologist.

Darren Clabo
"When we're starting to see precipitation deficits ... it does become quite concerning looking forward to our fire season. There is a reason why we've told the public that we shouldn't be lighting fireworks off in this area.” -- South Dakota Wildfire Meteorologist Darren Clabo

“The critical thing is, this is the time of the year when we get most of our rain. And so when we’re starting to see precipitation deficits during the time period when we get all the rain, it does become quite concerning looking forward to our fire season,” Clabo said.

The Black Hills and the area around the monument are dominated by fire-prone ponderosa pine forests, making the cities, towns and wilderness area in that region of western South Dakota far more vulnerable to wildfire, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Homes and businesses in and around the town of Keystone, about three miles northeast of Mount Rushmore, have a 95% greater risk from wildfire than communities in all other parts of South Dakota, according to the forest service “Wildfire and Risk to Communities” mapping tool.

The floor of a ponderosa pine forest tends to accumulate dry, dead grass and brush every spring. In the past, the dead grass and brush acted as a fuel source for frequent, low intensity fires caused by lightning. The fires would burn through the grass and brush and make way for new growth. Ponderosa pines, which are well adapted to fire, generally wouldn’t catch on fire and would survive. Intense, landscape-altering fires were rare.

But over the 20th century and into the 21st century, aggressive fire suppression efforts throughout the Black Hills interrupted the fire cycle and actually increased the potential for larger, more destructive fires. Fire protection in the Black Hills is compounded by the fact that the forest is dotted with hundreds of small, isolated, private homes and cabins.

The South Dakota legislature recognized the serious threat to life and property decades ago when it passed a law banning fireworks sales and use within the Black Hills Forest Fire Protection District.

“There’s a reason that we have that in place,” said Clabo. “There is a reason why we’ve told the public that we shouldn’t be lighting fireworks off in this area.”

The National Park Service, which manages the memorial, has determined that launching fireworks at Mount Rushmore would pose only a slight fire risk. In an environmental assessment conducted as part of the 2020 fireworks planning process, NPS staff estimated that, under normal conditions, there was a .02% chance of a 15- to 30-minute display igniting a wildfire that could threaten nearby homes, businesses or campgrounds.

However, the assessment said the risk of sparking a major fire would rise if the region were to be abnormally dry. Meanwhile, the chance of sparking a smaller fire that only affects the forest within the memorial was estimated at 60% if conditions were normal.

The Black Hills have been home to several major fires over the years, the most recent coming in December 2017 when the Legion Lake Fire about 20 miles southeast of Mount Rushmore burned more than 54,000 acres over five days and required 350 personnel and $2.5 million in costs to extinguish. That fire started from a downed powerline and was discovered within 10 minutes of ignition.

The Legion Lake Fire in December 2017 ignited from a downed power line and was discovered within 10 minutes of ignition but could not be contained for five days. The fire about 20 miles southeast of Mount Rushmore burned more than 54,000 acres. Photo: South Dakota Wildland Fire

In response to questions from South Dakota News Watch about the fire risk, Gov. Kristi Noem’s communications director Ian Fury said the park service has taken several precautions, including performing an environmental assessment, conducting a large controlled burn within the memorial’s borders in April and creating a safety “Go/ No-Go” checklist that would be used to determine whether the risk posed by the fireworks is too high to continue the event as planned.

“The Go/No-Go checklist for the event was developed in collaboration with several state, local, and federal agencies. This checklist is based primarily on forecasted and current weather and fuels conditions that are used to predict fire behavior as well as the availability of fire suppression resources,” Fury said in an emailed statement.

What the park service’s Go/No Go checklist covers, and under what conditions the fireworks could be cancelled, have not been released to the public. In response to a request from News Watch for details, Maureen McGee-Ballinger, chief interpretation and education officer for Mount Rushmore, said National Park Service law enforcement officials have decided not to release the criteria for security reasons.

South Dakota Secretary of Tourism Jim Hagen said safety is the state’s top priority in planning for the event.

“The world will have their eyes on South Dakota and we want to put our best foot forward. The event will be conditioned on appropriate weather, security and wildland fire conditions prior to the event,” Hagen said.

Fire wasn’t the only concern the NPS environmental assessment examined.

The trash left behind by exploded fireworks, including paper and cardboard, and even unexploded shells were found to harm the memorial’s aesthetics and pollute nearby water supplies.

A 2016 U.S. Geological Survey found that several chemicals in fireworks, most prominently perchlorate, had leached into Mouth Rushmore’s groundwater. Perchlorate, when ingested at high levels, has been known to affect human thyroid function, the environmental assessment said. The NPS added a reverse osmosis filtration system to its staff housing to reduce the chance of park employees being harmed by the chemicals.

Past fireworks events at Mount Rushmore also left scorch marks on top of the sculpture.

At least two other large Fourth of July fireworks displays in South Dakota have been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Watertown, the fireworks display at the Terry Redlin Art Center was cancelled in late April. The annual Jaycees fireworks show at the Sioux Empire Fairgrounds in Sioux Falls was also cancelled, but the show has since been revived by the fireworks vendor and a local radio station. The Sioux Falls event will be moved to the municipal Elmwood Golf Course, and spectators will be able watch from their cars while maintaining social distancing, organizers have said.

State officials have said that COVID-19 safety measures recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — such as limiting large gatherings, requiring people to be six feet apart and the wearing of masks — will not be required of attendees at the Rushmore show.

The state has taken safety measures to try to ensure the fireworks at Mount Rushmore on July 3 can be held without incident. A total of 7,500 free tickets will be issued to the event through a lottery system. Photo: South Dakota Department of Tourism

A city official in Keystone said her biggest worry heading up to the fireworks show is parking.

The Fourth of July fireworks display at Mount Rushmore has drawn huge crowds in the past and Keystone just doesn’t have enough parking for everybody, said Lynette Gohsman, president of the town Board of Trustees. In general, Gohsman said, business owners in Keystone are excited for the event and the influx of visitors and revenue the event is likely to bring.

“The fireworks were taken away years ago because of the fire danger. I don’t think they would have brought them back if that was still a huge concern,” Gohsman said.

Gabbert, who worked for the National Park Service during the late 1990s and 2000s, created a similar Go/No Go checklist after Mount Rushmore started hosting a fireworks display in 1998. The checklist Gabbert devised included an analysis of weather conditions and forest dryness as well as a process for determining how likely the fireworks would be to start a fire. In 2002, the fireworks were cancelled due to excessively dry conditions.

Mount Rushmore firework displays present firefighters with unique challenges, Gabbert said. The terrain is steep and broken and firefighters can’t move in to put out smoldering debris until the display is finished, meaning they must hike around in the dark looking for fires in broken terrain.

“It’s very difficult because of the steepness of the rocks. It’s hard to get around. It’s hard to navigate through the rocky terrain, in the dark especially,” said Gabbert, who is now retired and lives in the Black Hills where he publishes a wildfire news blog called Wildfire Today.

Of the 21 fires Mount Rushmore fireworks displays have set off in the past, none got out of control. When Gabbert was the memorial’s fire manager, there usually were 60 or more firefighters standing by to spot fires and mop up once the fireworks displays were over. Firefighters were able to get to the scene of the small fires before they could get out of hand, Gabbert said.

After 2009, though, the risk of wildfire became too high and the park service stopped hosting fireworks. At the time, a mountain pine beetle infestation in the Black Hills killed thousands of trees and created significant dry fuels that made even professionally organized fireworks displays too risky.

The beetle infestation was declared over in 2016 and almost immediately leaders in the tourism industry began calling for a return of the Mount Rushmore fireworks. In May 2019, the National Park Service, at the urging of President Trump, began working with Noem and the state tourism department to bring the event back.

Twice in 2019, Trump tweeted about fireworks at Mount Rushmore and on May 1, 2020, he said in an interview with a conservative podcast host that he planned to attend the event. He may be joined by 7,500 other observers who will receive free tickets chosen by a lottery run by the state. When the application period ended on June 8, roughly 25,000 applicants had asked for a total of 125,000 tickets.

The state of South Dakota, which is paying a majority of the event costs, has contracted with the California-based company Pyro Spectaculars for the fireworks. The display is expected to last 18 minutes and cost $350,000. Company officials toured the monument and surrounding area in late May in preparation for the show.

There is no estimate for how many people will try to watch the fireworks from outside the memorial boundaries, Hagen said.

“What we do know is that locals should be aware that this fireworks display may be different than in years past,” Hagen said. “We cannot guarantee where you will be able to see this outside of the memorial grounds.”