Out Like a Lion: Wildfires blaze across South Dakota
for Tri-State Livestock News
High winds and warm, dry conditions are a combination we all dread. March 29 had it all. Winds over 50 mph started early in the morning, as did fire alarms. About noon a Jones County, South Dakota, county road man, Colin Strait noticed smoke, called it in and tried to make a fire line with his road grader until getting stuck crossing a creek. Local farmers, ranchers and volunteer fire departments responded to the call.
Mel and Clarice Roghair live northwest of Okaton, South Dakota, and a little before 1 p.m. they lost electricity but thankfully still had a corded phone. Their oldest son, Marty, called to tell them to pack up whatever was important and to be ready to leave as a bad fire was just to the north of their house. The wind was so fierce that Clarice wasn’t even able to open her west-facing door. She had to use the other door to load a few belongings and their dog in the car. “I took pictures from the east side of the house, watching flames lick up the grasses of the northeastern hills. Heavy, fast smoke ahead of a roaring wind is hard to imagine if you’ve never seen it,” Clarice said.
Mel left to drive for his son and Clarice made a few phone calls, waiting until Marty called and told her to leave immediately. “It is a very strange feeling when you think your house is going to go up in smoke. It didn’t. How does one ever thank the firemen and other friends and neighbors who risked their lives in the battle against the wind-driven fire?” Clarice said.
Marty Roghair was on his way back with a load of feed from Kadoka. He made phone calls and arrived at his parents’ home, along with his brother, before the fire got there. Marty’s cows were pastured in the line of danger but the smoke and blowing dirt made it almost impossible to move them at all. “We couldn’t see ten feet when we were trying to move the cows.”
Eventually some of the cows were pushed below a dam as the fire came by, but the yearlings had to be left in the lot as they refused to leave. The main herd was still out in the winter pasture and the fire split around the creek area they gathered in and his herd came through unscathed. The Roghairs had taken a tractor and pickup up to help Colin Strait in the road grader by building a fire break around him. With the wind accelerating the blaze they were eventually forced to abandon the road grader and head back to the house in an effort to save the buildings. One pickup, blinded by the smoke, drove off the road and the occupants were saved from the fire by a fire truck out of Midland, who happened to be behind them. The fire melted the plastic bug shield on the pickup and popped the tires but the engine still starts. With new tires it will be going again. Everyone gathered in the yard of Mel and Clarice Roghair and even though part of their shelter belt was burnt, all the buildings were saved. “I’ve never seen anything like it, it just roared. It burnt the stubble fields and immediately the dirt started blowing. There is a good five to six inches of powder dirt in the road ditches. It looks like the pictures from the 1930s,” Marty said.
Marty figures he lost 20 miles of fence on land he rents and owns and probably 1,500 acres of spring and summer pasture. He runs on ground around his parents and also several miles away near his own home, and has always hated driving back and forth but now he is thankful to have unburnt pastures to haul his herd to and some hay to feed them. “To save on hay, all my replacement heifers are going to the sale on Friday.”
The road grader survived the fire and after being pulled out, went back to making fire break. The Dry Creek fire sped south and east, burning stubble fields, pastures and hay, the fire eventually jumped I-90 in multiple places, and crossed the old highway 16. It blazed across the county for nine and a half miles and left more than 9,900 acres blackened. Over a dozen fire departments assisted the residents of Jones County to fight the fire, something they are extremely grateful for, and to the local businesses that offered food and refreshments to everyone.
Schroeder Fire, Rapid City
Two smaller fires near Keystone, South Dakota forced the closing of Mt. Rushmore and highways 16A and 244. Another fire ignited in the Schroeder road subdivision just west of the Rapid City city limits, forcing numerous evacuations and at least one home has been lost. The fire is burning in rough hills and canyons inaccessible to vehicles, so firefighters on foot and with air support slowly made headway. Rocky Mountain Incident Management Blue Team has taken over operations giving a much needed respite to local departments. As of Friday morning the fire was at 2,224 acres and 87 percent contained. About 250 personnel were working the fire and focusing on protecting structures and private property. Most roads had been reopened, but a few residents were still not allowed back into their homes.
Divide Fire, Bison
At 6:10 p.m. on March 29, a fire was reported 4 miles north of Prairie City, South Dakota, fanned by winds of 40-50 mph, the fire burned a swath 12 miles long and in places 2 miles wide and was estimated at 8,000 acres. By evening they had the fire slowed and was reported 80 percent contained, thanks to the response of crews from 24 different rural departments, but strong winds on March 30 caused it to take off again. The Divide Fire burned a total of 10,800 to 11,800 acres. There have been reports of damage to firefighting equipment, livestock injured and killed but no homes were lost or human injury reported.
The fire started about 4 miles northwest of Eric and Ida Sander’s ranch near Bison, South Dakota. Ida was out monitoring the fire and her husband was helping neighbors move their cattle to safety. “It was blowing so hard you couldn’t see the road to drive on, hard to tell where the fire was. It came within a quarter mile of our house and buildings, one of our neighbors lost their shop and it came within ten feet of their house. We didn’t lose any livestock just hay, pasture and fences,” Ida said. “We live in a very wonderful part of the world, 24 different fire departments came, people dropping their lives to come help. Fire is a scary thing, we are praying for rain. It is very dry here.”
Ty Fowler ranches south of Buffalo, South Dakota nearly 70 miles from the Divide Fire, but he could see the smoke and dust at his home. The second day he asked emergency management if help was needed and the answer was yes. Being the chief of the Redig Fire Department, Fowler headed east with a neighbor. With nights still below freezing their fire truck didn’t have any water in it and they had to fill up when they got to the fire. “They were thanking us for coming before we did anything. But if I had a fire I would want people to come help. It was neat to see all the different departments respond,” Fowler said. “When we got close I thought it was a tremendous fire line, but it was mostly dirt in the air not just smoke. I saw a group of sheep along the highway that had apparently been in the path of the fire as some were obviously suffering. Several were nearly all black from being burned over. No doubt the owners were busy fighting fire and not able to attend to them. It was the most disturbing.”
Fowler said they have been extremely dry with only a half inch total of moisture recorded since November. He likened the blowing dirt to a blizzard. “It was scary-dangerous driving on those roads, as close to zero visibility as I want to be in. There were trucks going every direction, I was scared someone might be overdriving conditions and hit us, so we got off the road and drove in a field. The winds had started to die down about the time we headed home.”
Bison, South Dakota rancher Tom Brockel has a lot of rebuilding to do. “(It’s) pretty devastating for myself and those around me. The machinery and buildings we lost here can be replaced in time. The livestock is the hardest part, animals that are burned, we are doctoring them. My shop is a total loss, all my tools, it got so hot. My cattle shed was full of trucks, my fertilizer spreader and the antique tractor from my uncle, we lost all that.”
Neighbors helped to move vehicles and save some of his things before the fire reached his place. There were fire trucks in the yard trying to save the buildings, but when they ran out of water, Brockel couldn’t even run a garden hose since they had lost electricity. “We did what we could with what we had, (the fire fighters) put their lives on the line. But everybody is safe and come the end of the day we have a lot to be thankful for.”
The house was saved, along with a few other buildings but all the corrals, most of his fences and almost all of his pastures are gone. His nephew and a neighbor managed to open gates for the cattle and so far Brockel hasn’t lost any but he had been doctoring calves with burns and he is worried about possible pneumonia from the smoke. The second day he and some neighbors were pairing up and doctoring when they saw smoke rising again. “It was on us before we could do anything. It came within 300-400 yards of the house, a neighbor with a tractor and disk and my tractor and disk we plowed enough fire guard to divert it. I still have most of my hay, I lost a few stacks and lost my silage pile, it is still smoldering.”
“What we need the worst is moisture,” Brockel said. “I think that it is so dry, that the dirt is wanting to burn, I’ve never seen it so dry. Just hope and pray we get moisture. My dad started out here and now he is gone and most of my life here, so most of two lifetimes to build this place, it’s going to take years and years to rebuild. We are at a loss, just trying to pick up the pieces. An overwhelming amount of support, everyday a yard full of men here to help and this a time of year when everyone has a lot on their plates. It’s pretty humbling and we are extremely grateful.”
The causes of all the fires are still under official investigation.
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