Through the Fire: Lemmon Area Residents and Volunteer Firefighters Battle Blaze
“We’re still a little emotional, but VERY thankful.”
Kathy Zorc expressed the feeling that pervades the community of Lemmon, South Dakota. The acrid smell of burnt prairie still lingers, and in spite of some light snowfalls the twenty-plus mile stretch of blackened ground is all too obvious. Kathy and her husband, Joe, along with son Preston and his wife Maria and their children ranch a few miles south of Lemmon. The family was busy with preparations for daughter Kaylee’s wedding to Stephen on Saturday, January 16. Preston was trying to recover from a case of COVID. Kathy was in Lemmon at their church working on a bulletin when she heard the fire whistle blow Thursday afternoon, January 14, just after 4:30 p.m.
“I turned on KBJM radio and heard the report of a fire northwest of Lemmon,” Kathy said. “I texted Preston, and then called Joe. He said he’d go up on the hill and look. Next thing I knew he was headed for our friend, Terry Hoffman’s place, a few miles west of town, because the fire was heading for their house. A few minutes later when I came out of the church the whole sky was just red.”
Kim (Seim) Colville was at work in Lemmon when they got the call from firefighters that the fire was heading for their place. Kim and her husband Mike live near her parents Rod and Cheryl Seim, her brother Rory, and aunt and uncle Scott and Pam Seim northwest of town.
“When we turned off of Highway 12 to go up the Four Mile Road we noticed that the air was incredibly hot,” she said. “We weren’t even close to the fire at that point. The inferno of flames looked very close when we got home. We grabbed our pets first, then tried to come up with a plan of where to put things and move vehicles to.”
Cheryl Seim was working in her basement that afternoon and didn’t realize there was a fire until Kim called her.
“It was about a quarter of a mile away from their place at the time,” Kim said. “It’s a funny thing what you do when you’re in a panic. Mom grabbed all of the papers out of the fire proof safe, set them on the table, grabbed her cat and walked out without the documents. I grabbed our cordless phone on my way out of the house instead of my cell phone.”
Kim is thankful that they can laugh about it now, but it was no laughing matter with the fire ripping toward them driven by winds with gusts upwards of fifty miles per hour.
“We had just talked at coffee that morning about what a terrible day it was if something would happen,” she recalled. “Things can be replaced but people are pretty hard to replace.”
Neither Scott nor Rod lost livestock, but fences, hayfields and haystacks took a toll. Each of their homes was spared, but a house and barn that used to be home to Kim’s great aunt and uncle burned to the ground.
Lemmon Volunteer Fire Department got the call reporting the fire at 4:33 pm. Lemmon Fire Department Public Information Officer and Fire Marshall Shane Penfield said that when they arrived on the scene mere minutes later the fire had already traveled a mile.
“We called Hettinger for mutual aid right away,” Penfield said. “When I rolled out it was going through a field of CRP north of Seims; all we could see was a huge ball of flame. We knew then we were dealing with a big one.”
Allen Palmer of Bison said that Lemmon requested help from the Bison Fire Department roughly twelve minutes after the fire was reported. He sent several trucks and then headed north with his son a few minutes before five o’clock. By the time he reached highway 12 the fire was already ahead of them.
“I’ve been a volunteer firefighter since 1989,” Palmer said. “I’ve seen a lot of fires, but the thing about this one was that it was moving so fast and there were so many homes in its path. The old time firefighters always said that winter fires were the worst because it was so dry. I think they were right.”
A total of twenty-six fire departments from a 100 plus mile radius around Lemmon showed up to help battle the flames. Countless local farmers and ranchers fired up tractors, hooked up disks, filled spray tanks, hauled water, directed traffic, and provided support for their efforts.
“Lemmon Fire Chief Chad Baumgarten, our Incident Commander, made a good call,” Penfield said. “He sent Lemmon firefighters to the head because they knew the area best, and had the supporting departments work the flanks of the fire.”
While the head of the Windy Fire traveled roughly twenty miles in two hours time, the flanks moved erratically, driven by the crazy winds.
“These guys don’t talk about it a lot, but there were many acts of heroism that night,” Penfield said. “Some of them saw some pretty serious action. With the very limited visibility during the fire, it was a miracle that nobody got banged up, especially considering the number of people on the scene. We were blessed in that we did not have a significant number of injuries.”
Two firefighters were injured that night, but both were released from the hospital the following day.
When Kathy Zorc got home from Lemmon, she started packing whatever she could think of in her vehicle. Her daughter’s wedding dress and all the tuxedos for the upcoming wedding. Her computer. All of the family’s prescription medications. Her computer. The contents of the safe. The family cats.
“I didn’t really think, I was too busy just trying to get out of Dodge,” Kathy said. “I’ll never forget how Preston picked up a handful of dirt, watched the wind blow it away, and said, ‘I think we’re going to be ok, but you had better pack a bag and have Maria pack a bag too.’”
“When mom called from town to say there was a fire, at first I didn’t think much about it,” Preston said. “It was about twenty minutes later that it dawned on me that it was heading pretty much straight for us, and my stomach hit rock bottom. Dad was up at Hoffmans, but he came back and got the fire rig ready. I hooked up the disk and started disking. I kept watching the smoke line and figured that so long as it was still east of us it was probably going to skirt us, but we kept making strategies for how to defend the place. Our cattle were down on the creek so they were safe. I thought for sure it would be to Dupree by morning the way it was moving. It was such a weird feeling, hoping and praying that it would miss us but at the same time knowing that if it missed us it was heading for our neighbors.”
Maria and their children left about six o’clock, and were the last ones out before highway 73 was closed. When Kathy left the smoke was too thick to go east, so she took the gravel roads west to the White Butte Road and headed north.
“My friend called me and said that her husband, a firefighter, told her it would be to our place in seventeen minutes,” Kathy said. “It was hard leaving, knowing that Joe and Preston and our soon to be son-in-law Stephen were still there. You realize quickly what’s important.”
Incident Commander Baumgarten said that as it became evident that the fire had no respect for highways, roads, or the railroad, an initial strategy was to try to stop it at Flat Creek Lake, because it is a fairly significant body of water. The fire had other ideas, veering east of its original expected trajectory and crossing highway 73.
Kermet and Cindy Kahl live on the west side of Flat Creek Lake. Kermet was heading home from their ranch on the Cedar River northeast of Lemmon when he called Cindy and asked what she knew about the fire.
“That was the first I heard there was a fire,” Cindy said. “He told me he was going to drive up on Question Mark Hill west of town and take a look. A few minutes later he called me back. ‘I’m coming straight home,’ he said. ‘You had better get the horses in. It looks like it is headed straight for us.’”
By the time Kermet got home they could see the glow of the fire to the north. The couple hauled their horses west to the Johnson Ranch, left the pickup and trailer with the horses in the trailer and the keys in the pickup, then returned home to grab essential items and photo albums, move Kermet’s semi and cattle trailer and their saddles to a neighbor’s place to the west, checked to see if a couple of other neighbors needed help, and then parked on the dike north of the Shadehill Reservoir and watched the approaching inferno.
“I have never seen anything like it,” Cindy said. “I grew up right beside a railroad, so we saw lots of fires. We slept with the windows open in the summer time and as soon as we smelled smoke we were up and fighting fire.”
Kahls watched as the fire roared toward them and went on to the southeast. Pillars of flame fifty to one hundred feet high were shooting into the air. Balls of fire rolled out ahead of the front. Tornadoes of fire formed within the flames.
“The wind would sweep under it and roll it ahead; the currents were carrying it so fast,” Cindy said. “It was a solid wall of fire but the wind kept moving it and whipping it.”
It was a sight Cindy hopes she will never see again.
“It was such an eerie, helpless feeling to see that much of your country burning up,” she said. “It’s beyond words; flames shooting up, rolling ahead. We saw it jump the highway and knew it was headed for more of our neighbors.”
While Shane Penfield’s first duty was as a firefighter, his own ranch and his parents’ place lay in the path of the fire as well.
“I hoped my cows could figure their way out,” he said. “But I was worried about the horses and the bred heifers I had locked in the corral. I made the call to my folks to tell them they needed to prepare to evacuate. I was worried about my elderly neighbors across the highway but thankfully they were out of town. What really got me was a Hereford heifer calf I bought for my daughter last fall; I worried how she would take it if something happened to her. But at one point I just had peace that everything would be ok. I can’t name any names, but there were some guys who headed the east flank of the fire off at a road north of us, or my place and the place I grew up would have been in the crosshairs. I almost felt guilty being concerned for my place at all, knowing that wherever it struck what someone had worked their entire life for could all be gone so fast.”
Penfield said that the fire behavior was extreme and erratic. The whirling gusts of wind typical of January blizzards had a lot to do with the unusual patterns of movement and the speeds at which it traveled.
“I was thinking about all the blizzards we’ve seen as I drove down highway 73,” he said. “This was much worse than a blizzard. It was interesting to see how shelterbelts provided similar protection from the fire as they do from a blizzard. The slowed the wind just enough that buildings had some protection. You can see in the aerial photos how the fire split and went around several shelterbelts. I suspect that the bluffs of the Grand River had a similar effect, slowing the fire enough that it stopped there, but I can’t prove that scientifically. There were guys down there, but I think that for the most part it was the terrain that stopped it.”
“We had divine help that night,” Allen Palmer said. “I don’t care what anybody says. That fire jumped the river in two places. It jumped two highways, the railroad and multiple gravel roads. There was no reason it didn’t go on.”
“Prayers were answered that night. It is a huge blessing that the fire stopped where it did,” said Kathy Zorc.
Cindy Kahl said that it was a miracle that no one lost their home.
“It burned right up to the foundation of Brady and Kristin Ham’s house on the east side,” she said. “It burned the bottom step of the porch on another neighbor’s house. One neighbor lost the dog house next to the garage; another lost a garden shed close to his house. There were a lot of strange things. Thank God that no lives were lost.”
The community has rallied to gather support for the nineteen families directly impacted by the fire. Donations of hay and fencing supplies are rolling in from near and far. A relief fund set to match donations up to $50,000 has been established at Dakotah Bank in Lemmon. The Lemmon Chamber of Commerce office is organizing a list of needs and donations, and donations of smaller items can be dropped off there as well. Just a few days ago, volunteers gathered to make a meal and deliver it to the families who had been in the path of the fire.
Kim Colville said that this gesture of kindness from the community warmed her heart.
“It was a nice way to make the rural people feel like they are a part of the community,” she said. “It might not seem like much but it definitely says, ‘We care, we’re still thinking about you.’”
While the cause of the fire is still under investigation, everyone is grateful to the firefighters and other volunteers who put their lives on the line that night to fight the blaze, thankful to be part of a community that comes together and for neighbors who help neighbors when disaster strikes, and looking forward to spring moisture that will bring healing and new life to the charred prairie.
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