Rising fire dangers concern emergency responders

With fire conditions increasing, any small wildfire that starts, like this recent one along Interstate 90 caused by lightning, can quickly grow. This fire grew to four acres in a matter of minutes. Pioneer file photo

SPEARFISH — The drought conditions in the Black Hills and surrounding prairie have local fire departments and firefighters ready to pounce on a blaze should the call come, and with the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally just days away and the potential addition of a half million or more people to the area, the chance of a wildfire starting increases a little more.

“Everything is dry. Everything is hot,” said Paul Thomson, Lawrence County Emergency Manager.

He said fire restrictions in Lawrence County are divided into two regions — one, the areas south of Interstate 90, the Black Hills Forest Fire Protection district, and the other, north of Interstate 90.

South of I-90, fire management is controlled by the Black Hills National Forest, on forestlands; by the different municipalities inside city limits; and by the South Dakota Wildland Fire on county lands.

Thomson spoke specifically of county lands. Burning permits, whether for a campfire or slash pile, are issued through that agency by calling 584-2300. Additional information can be found at sdda.sd.gov/wildland-fire.

However, Thomson said, when fire index, which is set by the National Weather Service every day, is at high or above, according to the permit, it is null and void and “you cannot burn at all.”

North of the interstate, no burn permit is needed; however, an ordinance adopted by the Lawrence County Commissioners in 2012 dictates that fire index conditions need to be at low or moderate to burn.

Exactly what determines “burning” is also a murky area, Thomson said.

Gas or charcoal barbeques, chimeneas, or outdoor manufactured fire pits approved by national standards are usually OK, he said. A ring of rocks in the backyard or burning in a burn barrel is not.

“If it has an open flame, that’s probably burning,” Thomson said.

“The ordinance states that north of the interstate, if you do slip up and burn and it causes a fire, you’re liable for not only the damages but also the cost of suppression,” Thomson added. “The cost would be tremendous. It would be astronomical in some people’s eyes. That equipment is very expensive.”

Thomson was asked if this year’s fire conditions concern him greatly.

“Yea, it kind of does,” he said. “Even a lightning strike in the middle of the night will sit there and smolder. It’s cooler, the humidity is higher, and firemen know that when a lightning storm goes through, chances are fires will pop up between 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. That time of day, the temperature rises, the humidity drops. Maybe the wind picks up.”

He referred to the July 26 Freeman Fire that started on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Multiple lightning-caused grassfires combined and burned more than 18,000 acres overnight.

Now, he said, thousands of bikers will roll through the area, some wanting campfires, some smoking, and the chance for a fire to start becomes that much greater.

“This year could be bad because of the conditions. Now last year, I don’t think you could have gotten it to burn if you tried. But everything was green,” he said. “We still have some green undergrowth, but all the grass is dry and can go pretty quickly.”

Even in low or moderate conditions, fires can spread easily.

Thomson said if someone asked him if it was OK to have a campfire in the backyard now, even in moderate fire danger, he said he would advise them against it.

“The conditions I’m looking at today, does your need for a fire outweigh the safety of yourself and others around you?” he said. “Everybody likes to have little campfire, but if you knew you’d start a fire, have a little wind come up, and burn a thousand acres, I’d ask you, ‘Would you do that again?’ You’d say, ‘Oh, no.’”

“I’ve always told my kids, ‘Every big fire starts from a little fire. Every little fire starts from a spark of some kind,’” he said.

Thomson said he has seen fire dangers this great several times during his tenure.

“I had been in this job for six months. I started in October 2001, and on June 29, 2002, Grizzly Gulch. It had been over 100 degrees for five days. We hadn’t had rain for I don’t know how many days, and conditions were just dictating that if a small fire started, it wouldn’t stay small long. It proved to be true. It was a very large fire in a very short time.

“Conditions are not as severe now as then. But we’ve seen these conditions over the last 15 years that I’ve been in emergency management that have produced very dangerous fires,” Thomson concluded.

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