WHERE THERE’S SMOKE: Fire season in South Dakota starting early | TSLN.com

WHERE THERE’S SMOKE: Fire season in South Dakota starting early

Maria Tussing
Assistant Editor

Dan Davis watched his spring pastures burn in the Sheep Draw fire earlier this week. Fences, trees, grass—all the feed and shelter he was counting on taking care of his cows and calves until he could put them on summer pasture—gone. All told, he and his neighbors lost about 14,000 acres in the fire that started March 28. "I believe we're running one of the largest open ranges in Harding County," he said.

But his focus is on gratitude. "Without the community coming together like we do at times like this, we couldn't exist out here," he said.

The community he refers to covers about a quarter of South Dakota, in the hardscrabble country of the northwestern part of the state. That's in good times. In bad times like this, the community grows. "I guess it would be a statewide community," he said.

Jim Strain is the chief fire management officer for the South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire, and was the incident commander on the Sheep Draw fire. A lifelong firefighter and native South Dakotan, Strain said, "I can't remember a time that we were more welcomed anywhere than we were in western South Dakota."

As a professional fire fighter, Strain recognizes how important the landowner and community involvement is in being successful in situations like this. "We wouldn't have been near as successful if it weren't for our local community and ranchers."

The other benefit of having a lot of community support comes in costs savings, Strain said. "We want to manage to get the fire stopped in a safe way that minimizes cost to the taxpayer. We didn't want to bring in a federal Type I or Type II team because they cost a lot of money. Through a lot of good fortune we could keep it local, keep those costs down. You don't get that kind of support unless the locals are out there working with you."

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In the big spaces of Harding county, folks who live 30 miles apart are still loosely considered neighbors. So when the Moonshine fire started up on Tuesday, April 1, just as the Sheep Draw fire was winding down, most of the resources went to that fire and started all over.

As of Friday morning, the Moonshine fire, which was burning on U.S. Forest Service property near Slim Buttes, had burned about 4,000 acres and was 5 percent contained. A Type III federal fire-fighting crew was called in, according to InciWeb, the incident information system for all federal and state fire agencies.

Strain said part of the reason for that decision was that the local resources were getting worn out. "Everybody gets so tired when it's day after day of fires. They are volunteers, so they have day jobs, then working day after day in stressful situations, they get tired and we end up with fire-related accidents or injuries."

Will Larson of Reva spent Wednesday night on the Moonshine fire, trying to make sure it didn't jump the dozer line. Thursday morning he was heading back to his own ranch, where they're in the middle of calving out heifers. While he wasn't on the Sheep Draw fire, a lot of the firefighters were. "There has been an outstanding community response. It's a very tight community and all the local departments around here are excellent. I think the manpower is probably a little bit stressed and wore out," Larson said.

Strain understands that spring is particularly difficult for volunteer firefighters whose "day job" is 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"This time of year is tough on our ranchers, since they're busy calving, then they jump on a truck to fight fire. It's a team effort all the way around. I was just touched by the welcoming attitude of all the ranchers. It helped us out a lot."

Strain said the ranchers were especially helpful because they know the terrain, the back roads, trails and creek crossings. He said they were also very willing to let the helicopters fill buckets out of their stock dams, which saved a lot of travel time. It's state policy to replenish any water that is removed during a fire, since a few dips from a 500-gallon bucket can quickly deplete a western South Dakota stock dam.

Dry spring

In March, Davis and his neighbors are usually more concerned about wind-driven snow than wind-driven fire, but this year is an exception.

Darren Clabo, state fire meteorologist for South Dakota and incident meteorologist for the Sheep Draw fire, said most of South Dakota has received less than half of the moisture expected year-to-date.

"The amount of fire activity and number of red flag warning days we've had is abnormally high this year. That's really attributed to the lack of precipitation over the last three months, as well as the heavy accumulation of fuels in the grassland and the forest," Clabo said.

Combine that with some of South Dakota's famous spring winds—gusts reached 72 miles per hour the night the Sheep Draw fire started—and a lot of grass is gone in a hurry.

While it's tough to look at the black pastures that should be greening, ride the fencelines that are reduced to wire and staples, and feel optimistic, Clabo said the news isn't all bad.

"If you're going to have a fire any time of the year, March is a good time. April, May and June are typically our three wettest months," he said. "We will get spring rains. Whether that's above or below average, it doesn't matter. We do expect grass to come back with vigor."

Meteorologists are still predicting average springtime precipitation, despite the early warm-up and dry weather.

"Looking into the summer months, May and June are really the months we need to focus on when it comes to precipitation," Clabo said. "Typically if we get ample precipitation in May and June, we don't have many fires."

Moving on

Davis has been though a burn like this before, in 1988, shortly after he moved onto his ranch. "It was comparable, lots of resources, lots of good neighbors," he said.

"I know there was more property lost for different individuals than myself. I'm luckier, but not feeling good about it by any means."

Typically his cows that have calved get shifted toward the timberline, where they would have protection and leftover grass from last fall. Now that timberline is black and smoldering.

So, he'll do what ranchers always do—adapt. "It's going to put me in my summer pastures earlier. Everything I own for natural protection has been consumed by fire."

He has more immediate concerns, though, caused by the chaos. After a frenzy of throwing open gates and getting the stock moved out of the path of the fire, he's got some sorting to do. Factor in that bovine labor doesn't stop just because their calving pasture is burning, and there's plenty of confusion. "We'll get this straightened out with a few more days of all-nighters," Davis said. "It makes you wonder just how much of this can be thrown at you and keep ahead of it, but we seem to."

Davis said he hadn't heard that any buildings or stock were lost.

"It's just kind of ranching. Harding County is a hard place to make a living. It feels kind of tough to you sometimes."