Third Party Verification and Carcass Disposal:
Adele Harty – 605-394-1722 (SDSU Extension)
Farm Service Agency:
Haakon/Jackson FSA, Philip – 605-859-2186
Applications accepted for assistance to cover costs of livestock, hay, fences
US Forest Service
Wall Ranger District – 605-279-2125
Fencing materials may be available – contact them before beginning construction on F.S. land
Need for hay, grass or pasture, contact S.D. Stockgrowers Assocaition – 605-222-8935
Stress and mental health – 605-381-5024
The flames of the Cottonwood Fire that blazed through western South Dakota have been tamed, and in the ashes of the now charred rangeland, the ranching community is banding together to help one another.
Grady Crew ranches with his family near Wall, S.D., and his pastures were in the direct path of the fire that burned around 65 square miles on Sunday, Oct. 16.
Officials declared the fire completely contained by 8 p.m. Tuesday, but have remained on-scene in the days since to monitor the area and prevent any flare-ups.
“We have 20 quarters of land in Forest Service permits, and every single acre burnt except for 80,” said Crew. “We lost 30 cows and 20 calves, and I think we will end up losing a few more that were burned marginally bad and now have bad udders and eye problems. We lost corrals, water tanks and virtually all of our fences.”
In addition to precious grass and cattle being lost, miles of fence lines were also destroyed.
“Every fence is gone; it’s unfathomable,” said Crew. “Miles of fence will need to be rebuilt, and that’s a daunting task — both financially and the labor required to put up new fence. Some of these fences go back to the homestead days; this is generations of hard work lost in one afternoon.”
Crew, and the 15 other families who were impacted in the fire, has been scrambling to locate cattle, move pairs to safe locations, secure emergency hay supplies, treat cows and calves and get a sense of what was lost and what to do next.
“With no grass and no fences, we had to get our cattle moved quickly,” said Crew. “We trailed one of the herds about five miles away and loaded them up to the home place that didn’t get burnt. Another one of our herds luckily ran into a corn silage field that didn’t have enough forage to burn, so we trailed them home, as well. We have plenty of hay at home to get us through the winter, but we are worried the Forest Service won’t allow us to graze the public land next spring, so we’re hoping for a wetter winter to help with the regrowth on these pastures.”
Officials think the blaze was sparked by humans as the source of the flames starts on the edge of the interstate. Extremely dry and windy conditions caused the fire to quickly spread. The flames spanned as wide as six miles and as long as 17 miles.
“This is one of the worst fires I’ve ever helped fight,” said local rancher and Haakon County Commissioner Stephen Clements. “We were able to save everyone’s houses except for an old long house that was sitting empty. One rancher lost 75 head of cattle, another lost 30. Many of the cattle got so hot their ear tags melted off, and their hooves are severely burnt. One guy lost everything but 30 acres of grass and his house. He lost corrals, barns, buildings, hay, and the fire burnt right up to sides of his home. It’s too costly to rebuild everything and drylot them for a year, maybe two depending on Forest Service permits, so he will have to sell what’s left. It’s pretty devastating, but for the most part, people are staying pretty positive.”
Clements estimates that more than 300 trucks were on hand to fight the flames. He worked with five others with pickups and sprayers to follow up the tail end of the fire.
“The flames were moving too quickly for us to be out front,” he said. “A fire chief told me that he pulled alongside a gravel road to dial his cell phone, and by the time he had dialed the seven digits, the fire had moved a mile. It was hot and fast.”
The fire is now contained, he says, except for trees smoldering. The area is on watch for any flare ups.
“The real trouble was, we aren’t allowed to disc or put up a fire guard on federal land, so we were limited in fighting the fire that way,” he said. “We had one rancher asked to go on the other side of the fence to his private land to plow through his side of the pastures. I’m not sure if the fire ended up hitting the fence line there or not.”
Firefighters not only fought the fire, but they cut fences to help cattle escape the flames. At last count, the death toll for cattle was 137 head, although more losses may occur as a result of burns and respiratory issues.
South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune is urging the FSA and South Dakota Department of Agriculture to assist area ranchers. In a letter, Thune wrote to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, saying, “Once again, the producers in this area urgently need timely assistance from USDA due to the devastating feed and livestock losses caused by the Cottonwood Fire, and I strongly urge you to take whatever action necessary to provide assistance to these producers through FSA disaster assistance programs, including the Livestock Forage Program, the Livestock Indemnity Program, the Emergency Conservation Program, and the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees, and Farm-raised Fish Program.”
South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard on Oct. 20, issued an emergency disaster declaration for Jackson County.
On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. John Thune wrote U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to ask for federal disaster assistance for ranchers affected by the fire.
The disaster declaration says the state will cover 90 percent of non-federal fire apparatus fuel costs, all aircraft expenses and South Dakota Wildland Fire’s suppression expenses.
The fire bring back memories of the blizzard Atlas that hit the area just three years ago.
The fire hits at a time where cattle markets are low and ranchers are struggling to make ends meet.
“This is as bad of a fire as I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” said Crew. “It’s heart breaking to think of how many of our neighbors have been impacted by this. The size and scope of this fire is something I’ve never seen before.”
The South Dakota Department of Agriculture (SDDA) and FSA have extended offers to apply for the South Dakota CRP Mid-Term Management Hay Distribution Program. Baled residue is available each year and is primarily offered to counties hit hardest by drought, as well as beginning farmers in those areas; however, Jodi Bechard, SDDA special projects coordinator, says SDDA is now taking applicants from those impacted by the fire and will match those in need with donors.
“This effort is being coordinated by FSA, and we serve as the third party to match applicants with donors,” said Bechard. “We aren’t sure what the need is yet, but the emergency management folks are working hard to get the word out to applicants. We currently have about 250 applications from around the state, but we have put those hay donations on hold for a couple of days until we can see what the need will be for those impacted by the fire. We’ll do our best to the hay to those who need it as quickly as we can.”
To received donated CRP hay, ranchers can fill out an application form found at sdda.sd.gov.
Meanwhile, community members are hard at work acquiring available labor, fencing materials, hay and medicine for impacted ranchers. A Facebook group — Cottonwood SD Prairie Fire — is available for volunteers and ranchers to connect.
“If anyone wants to donate fencing supplies, they will be kept at the Cottonwood Range and Livestock Field Station,” said Adele Harty, South Dakota State University Extension field specialist. “We are working on determining immediate needs and taking care of them. Silvia Christen with Stockgrowers is helping to organize all of this and will assist with getting the donations distributed. This is all still pretty raw for some of them, and they don’t really know what they need yet. There are many volunteers behind the relief efforts and South Dakota Stockgrowers and Cattlemen’s Associations are assisting, as well. This weekend, there will be two groups that will work on two of the ranches affected to assist with cleanup and pulling fences.”
Amy Pravecek, Zoetis territory business manager, from Winner, S.D., is working to connect ranchers with available medicines for treating cattle.
“Zoetis is donating whatever products producers might need such as Enforce, a respiratory vaccine, which can go directly to producers,” said Pravecek. “We’ll also work with veterinarians to get Draxxin for treatment of respiratory distress, burns and injuries. It’s important to get these cattle treated as soon as possible.”
Producers needing vaccines can contact Pravecek at 605-390-4241 for more information.
“Our area was fortunate to receive plenty of moisture this summer, so we have plenty of grass and hay available,” she said. “We are also trying to connect impacted ranchers with folks in Tripp County to possibly send cattle this way where there’s plenty of feed available. This is a huge reminder of Atlas, and like then, people are so willing to come together and help each other out through hard times. I know ranchers are sometimes hesitant to ask for help, so hopefully they will take all of us up on our offers to assist them and accept donations.”