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Incident Name: prescribed burn
Date: 3/8/2000, died on 3/17/2000
Personnel: Robert W Buhler
Age: 62
Agency/Organization: Delmont Volunteer Fire Department, Delmont SD
Position: firefighter

Summary: Firefighter Buhler and members of his fire department were fighting a wildland fire. The fire was the result of a controlled field burn that was being conducted by some local citizens that got out of control. The conditions were dry with winds of 40 miles per hour. The fire was in a very deep winding ravine. Hose was being added to an attack line when a wind gust blew up an area that had been thought to be previously extinguished. The fire spread rapidly up a hill and engulfed Firefighter Buhler. Firefighter Buhler had responded directly to the scene from a nearby town and was not wearing protective clothing. Firefighter Buhler was severely burned over 60 to 80 percent of his body and died on March 16, 2000. Another firefighter, who was near Firefighter Buhler at the time of the blowup and who was equipped with protective clothing, received minor injuries.


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Delmont Volunteer Fire Department, Delmont SD

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Reports, Documentation, Lessons Learned

  • NIOSH Report: Wildland Fire Claims the Life of One Volunteer Fire Fighter and Injures Another Fire Fighter - South Dakota Recommendations:
    • ensure that all fire fighters receive training equivalent to the NFPA Fire Fighter Level I certification
    • ensure that all fire fighters receive training equivalent to the NFPA Wildland Fire Fighter Level I certification
    • ensure that the department’s Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are developed, followed, and refresher training is provided
    • ensure that the Incident Commander conveys strategic decisions to all suppression crews on the fireground and continually reevaluates fire conditions
    • provide fireground personnel with personal protective equipment and monitor to ensure its use

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Media Articles and Reports

  • Wildfire Claims South Dakota Firefighter

    3/18/2000 | Denise D. Tucker, Argus Leader; Online article (no longer online)

    A volunteer firefighter died Thursday, Mar. 17, 10 days after he was severely burned in a wind-whipped prairie fire near Delmont, South Dakota.

    Robert Buhler, 62, suffered second- and third-degree burns over 60 percent to 80 percent of his body. The nine-year veteran of the Delmont Volunteer Fire Department was being treated at the Avera McKennan Hospital Burn Unit in Sioux Falls.

    The wind was blowing nearly 40 mph March 6 when a controlled burn about four miles south of Delmont got out of control. The fire found fuel in the dry grass and brush of a ravine. Buhler was on the hill, near the firetruck, said Delmont Fire Chief Kevin Hanten. "The fire flashed up the hill," said Hanten. "He couldn't get out of there fast enough."

    Volunteer firefighter Robert Kurtz was near Buhler when flames roared up. Kurtz was wearing protective gear and received minor neck and facial burns from the flashover. Buhler was not. "He was visiting in another town and didn't have time to go back and get his stuff," Kurtz said. "He knew we were really short-handed and that we needed help. He's a hero."

    Two men from Delmont have been charged with misdemeanors in connection with the blaze. On March 8, Douglas County State's Attorney Brad Kerner filed a misdemeanor charge against Doug and Delbert Bitterman for burning land without a firebreak. They could get up to a year in the county jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted.

    Kerner could not be reached for comment to see if there would be additional charges filed in the wake of Buhler's death.

    The fire marshal's office and the state Division of Forestry are still looking into the circumstances surrounding the fire.

    South Dakota Fire Marshal Dan Carslon said the last firefighter to die in the line of duty was Donny Marso in 1977. Marso was helping to fight a fire outside of Pierre, when the truck he was in rolled and killed him.

    Carlson said about 30 to 40 firefighters have been killed since the early 1900s.

    Hanten said Buhler was a semi-retired bachelor who also served as the department's secretary. "He was kind of a quiet guy, not real outgoing. But, he would do anything for you if you asked him," Hanten said. Buhler was known throughout town for his quiet nature and helping hand. He was dedicated to his community and a member of the Development Corporation and Community Club. "He was really, really easy going," Kurtz said. "He kept a lot to himself. He didn't smoke and didn't drink. He was more of a home person. He took care of his folks until they passed away."

    Curtis Buhler said his younger brother was born in Armour and attended rural schools, before going to Delmont High School. He was later drafted into the Army and served for a couple of years."Bob was a very kind person who tried to help out whoever he could, whenever he could," said Rosemary Grosz, his girlfriend of nine years. "He was a wonderful caring person."

    Buhler was also known for his woodwork. Grosz treasures a piece that he gave her four years ago. "It's a beautiful table in my living room made of oak. People are always asking me where I go it. But, it's one-of-a-kind," she said.

    Buhler's sister, Marjorie Gaffin of Rapid City, noted that while her brother was a quiet man, he was full of fun and liked to tease and kid people. "My girls loved him because he gave them such a bad time," she said.

    Buhler also had one other sister, Darlene Sperlich of Armour.

    Over the years, Buhler worked different part-time jobs One of the places he worked at was the Blue Bird Locker in Delmont. "He was a great employee. He'd do anything for you -- no questions asked," said owner Ervin Bietz. One of the things Bietz noticed was that Buhler never had anything that was broken. He was quick to fix things. "He took good care of his vehicles. They were spotless, neat and clean," Bietz said. Two weeks ago, Buhler brought Bietz four blue bird houses that he made. "I've got a little acreage and he wanted to see if they would work," Bietz said.

    Clements-Wiese Funeral Home in Armour will be in charge of arrangements.

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