SPEARFISH — The Crow Peak Fire may not have started in a perfect storm of fire conditions, but they were challenging nonetheless.
The fire was reported late on a hot, windy day in rugged terrain, with trees packed in close together, no good amount of precipitation in site and fire crews around the country tasked on other infernos. The fire had a fighting chance to grow quickly.
The fire, now contained at about 135 acres, began on June 22 when a massive thunderstorm rolled through the area pounding the Hills with rain and lightning for an hour.
The fire was first reported Saturday afternoon when temperatures were in the 90s.
Crews responded but with darkness approaching quickly and little known about the fire and terrain, they did not fight the fire until Sunday morning.
“It was just too dangerous,” said Bonnie Jones, a fire information officer for the Black Hills National Forest.
On Sunday fire crews were able to find an old road and create a line around the fire with a bulldozer. Helicopters with the South Dakota National Guard poured bucket after bucket of water on the fire. And then came the hand crews.
With temperatures nudging 100 they trudged into the smoke to begin their efforts even with winds fanning the flames.
“When wind and slopes become aligned it really wants to push the fire at a high rate of spread. It gives us some problems,” said Brian Daunt, the incident commander of the fire.
But in this case, slope and wind was not aligned.
“Fire's natural tendency is to run uphill,” Jones said. “The winds those first days were blowing downhill, so the fire was really pushed down.”
Another saving grace was Sunday's high humidity, which Jones said helped keep the fire from exploding.
Monday marked a critical day in firefighting progress.
“Tomorrow is going to be very challenging for us,” Daunt said Monday afternoon. “We want to make as much headway as we can.”
Critical because the temperatures were expected to soar above 100 degrees. And firefighters do this carrying about 35 pounds of gear — more if they are sawyers.
In addition to fire resistant clothing and a pair of sturdy leather boots, each firefighter carries leather gloves, a helmet, a fire shelter, two or three bottles of water and even more for the crews who are on the lines all day away from engines. They carry food, a first aid kit, files too keep tools sharp, fuzzies or flayers used for signaling or starting fires if necessary, radios, a notepad and pens, flagging to mark hazards or trails and more. Then there are chainsaws and fuel to carry, and McLeods — which look like a combination of a large hoe and a rake.
“The rake is really good for ripping through roots,” said firefighter Nicole Nemmers.
They also carry combis — a shovel and pick combination tool.
“I use it (the combi) to hack my way through things,” said firefighter Kayla McCarthy.
One of the most common tools, a Pulaski, is a combination axe and adze for chopping or digging.
The weight adds up quickly.
Then add in the high temperatures from the flames, the typical high temperatures that helped spawn the fire to begin with, steep terrain and thick underbrush — a firefighter on the line has his work cut out for him.
On Tuesday crews battled 104-degree temperatures while on the line.
“It's been very challenging. Especially on Tuesday when it was so hot,” said 27-year veteran firefighter Darrell Hartmann of Brookings. “Down here it was like a tropical jungle. It was humid and hot.”
Another saving grace came in the form of an unexpected downpour that doused the flames with a half-inch of rain.
Jones said that very well may have been a “million dollar rain,” meaning it may have saved taxpayers $1 million in firefighting costs.
As of Thursday, she said about $750,000 had already been spent in firefighting efforts.
Rookie firefighter Alison Price was found with her team on Thursday extinguishing hotspots inside the fire lines.
“This is my first one out. It's been fabulous. The crews are working well together,” said Price of Washington state.
She said the days have been long and hard but she is learning a lot from veterans of wildland fires.
“I'm a complete rookie, but I'm with a lot of great people.”
Hartmann said crews were now building on their progress and making sure everything within 200 feet of the lines is cold.
“We call it cold trailing,” Hartmann said. “Basically everything should be cold by the time we leave that grid area. That reassures nothing can roll down across the line.”
“This was a pretty small fire. They got good containment on it pretty quick,” he added. “We've had great crews up here and great leadership.”