PIERRE, S.D. — South Dakota authorities are not releasing the name of a man upon whose land a devastating wildfire last month ignited, though they insist they're not shielding his identity.
In a phone call on Friday, April 23, Tony Mangan, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, which as of this week oversees the state's wildland fire agency, said that program's practice in releasing fire reports has been to block out the names of private citizens involved in incidents.
"There's not a policy, per se," said Mangan. "But there's a precedent."
Mangan pointed to a South Dakota Wildland Fire report on the 2017 Legion Lake Fire, which he said blocked-out names of persons involved.
According to an article in 2018, however, names of persons impacted by the 2017 fire were made public in an after-action report. When informed of this, Mangan said the redaction on Schroeder happened prior to DPS receiving the investigation.
Prior to this week, Wildland Fire was administratively housed under the South Dakota Department of Agriculture.
"Look, whatever was done for Legion Lake fire or anything else was before we got involved," said Mangan. "And when we got involved in this, the decision had already been made that the redacted report would be made available, and that's what we did on this case."
One distinction, Mangan noted later on Friday, was that the 2017 Legion Lake Fire started on public land (inside Custer State Park), while the Schroeder Fire ignited on private land.
After the 60-page report was first released this week, Mangan said that the property owner, whose slash pile burn is blamed by investigator Todd J. Hedglin as the source for the 2,250-acre-burning Schroeder Fire, also invoked "Marsy's Law." That action, the DPS spokesman said, prevents government authorities from disclosing the names of victims of crimes.
No criminal charges have been filed related to the fire, and authorities have said they don't plan to press any charge.
With respect to defining "victim" by the terms of Marsy's Law, Mangan offered the hypothetical of a car crash that produces no criminal charges, saying in such instances, state officials may choose to redact all the names involved in a public safety event, be it a wildfire or a car crash.
South Dakota open records laws require a presumption of openness, "[u]nless any other statute, ordinance, or rule expressly provides that particular information or records may not be made public."
Earlier in the week, DPS sent to reporters a copy of the 60-page "origin report" on the Schroeder Fire, which blamed an ember that escaped from a burn pile thought to be extinguished for starting the blaze that led 500 Rapid City residents to flee their homes.
That report included a number of redacted names. However, three names — one of whom is believed by sources who've spoken with Forum News Service to be the owner of the property where the slash pile burn started — were not whited-out on the investigator's works cited page.
On Wednesday, one day after the report's issuance, Mangan called FNS to request that document be destroyed. A new report, with those names redacted, was then sent to media.
"It was included by mistake," said Mangan, on Friday. "And we worked to resolve that issue."
It wasn't clear by deadline on Friday, whether Wildland Fire — who was inherited by DPS from the Department of Agriculture following a state government department consolidation finalized earlier this week — routinely redacted the names of private landowners on whose property wildfires had ignited in the past.
On Friday, Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom also said over a dozen of his agents investigated an arson claim in the Schroeder Fire incident, as the homeowner — whose identity was revealed on Thursday by The Rapid City Journal — had claimed previous arson attempts at his property west of Rapid City.
"Through that process we don't have anything based on information to date... that would support a claim of arson," Thom said.
Thom also acknowledged that his office worked in consultation with Pennington County State's Attorney Mark Vargo to reach a decision that no charges should be filed in the Schroeder Fire case.
Vargo did not respond to a voicemail requesting comment.
The invocation of Marsy's Law by the property owner in the Schroeder Fire raises questions for Dave Bordewyk, Executive Director of the South Dakota Newspaper Association, who suggested the law has undergone a "broad interpretation or even misinterpretation" on who can be declared a victim — even including persons who might be responsible for starting a forest fire.
"It's the wild, wild west of privacy law right now in South Dakota," said Bordewyk.
Property owners in the late March blaze, according to the fire investigator's report, lost outbuildings and one residence. Over 150 personnel — including local and federal authorities — were called upon to contain the fire.