Black Hills ablaze

An unidentified firefighter returns to the line on Wednesday at the Ghost fire. (Katie Allen photo)

By Sarah Pridgeon

Smoke has been visible all across the county over the last two weeks, with wildfires burning throughout the Black Hills. Thanks to the recent extreme weather, a single spark or lightning strike became sufficient to ignite blazes across Crook County and beyond.

Lightning was the cause of three fires around 13 miles west of Sundance, all located in the vicinity of I-90, near the Inyan Kara Rd exit, and thought to have been caused by lightning strikes from a passing thunderstorm on Sunday evening, at around 11 p.m. The Perala fire was at that time 10 acres in size and responded to by a single engine, while a helicopter and several fire personnel were on scene at the Ghost fire by the evening.

As is common with wildland fires in the county, said Fire Warden Gari Gill, the Hagerman fire was reported and contained by landowners prior to the arrival of the volunteer fire units. Thanks to Commissioner Hadley and his family’s immediate response, commented Gill, the fire was prevented from growing much larger and faster than it finally did at 23.8 acres and fire units were able to contain it just as the other two fires grew in strength.

The Ghost fire remained at 60 acres until the afternoon of July 3, when the lines were breached and the fire grew to around 700 acres in the space of an hour. By early evening, thanks to the weather, the north end of the fire had been lost.

By 3:30 the next morning, however, fire crews had performed a back-burn and successfully stopped the fire from growing. Around 75 firefighters were at that time active at the Ghost fire, including 11 Smokebusters and 5 Helitac crew. The fire burned an estimated 1686 acres.

The Perala fire was also caught early by local residents, including Commissioner Kelly Dennis, who responded before the fire units arrived. It burned a total of 35 acres with no structural loss.

Fire Warden Gill announced on Friday that all active fires in the county had reached 100 percent containment. A large plume of smoke had been visible for several miles around the county while crews battled the flames.

“It’s times like this that our community pulls together to take care of each other. We couldn’t get through these events without each other,” commented Gill, thanking all the responding fire companies and the Crook County Auxiliary for providing meals to the volunteers.

“We also sincerely thank County Commissioner Hadley and his family for allowing us to set up our Incident Command post at their home. Our County Commissioners not only lead our county, but are out on the lines fighting the fires and providing support to the crews in person. This is yet another example of what makes our county so special.”

Northwest of Newcastle, a fire that began just before midnight on June 29 tripled in size over the next few days and had reached 61,472 acres a week later. The Oil Creek blaze was fought by around 719 personnel, using 14 dozers, six water tenders and 61 wild land and structural protection engines, as well as five aircraft.

With winds constantly threatening to alter the path of the Oil Creek fire and testing the lines set up by the firefighting teams, nearby Osage was evacuated temporarily on Monday, July 3, and a shelter was set up in Newcastle for the 300 residents. Most returned to the town shortly afterwards and evacuation orders had largely been lifted by Friday, when containment was estimated at 50 percent thanks to the “wetting rain” provided by the previous evening’s thunderstorms.

At time of going to press, the final size of the Oil Creek fire was estimated to be 62,318 acres at 100 percent containment. One structure – a barn – and many fences were lost, as well as a large area of privately owned ranch land.

All evacuation and pre-evacuation notices have been lifted and 76 personnel remain on site, mopping up and watching for new burning activity as temperatures once again reach the 90s.

Dubbed the Highlands fire, a blaze 14 miles southeast of Newcastle, south of Highway 16, meanwhile reached 394 acres by the time it was contained. Its cause as yet unknown, the flames destroyed five structures and damaged two and the fire was fought using resources including eight engines, two water tankers and seven overhead support vehicles, totaling 31 personnel.

The Soldier Fire was reported at approximately 8 a.m. on July 2, six miles south of Beulah. It was contained by the next day at five acres in size.

Over the border in South Dakota, lightning again sparked a fire on Saturday, June 23 near Spearfish. The Crow Peak wildfire reached 135 acres by the time it was contained, with around 160 firefighters working the fire at its peak, including overhead personnel in support positions and two Black Hawk helicopters aiding firefighters on the ground with water bucket drops.

By Thursday, mop up operations had begun, with firefighters patrolling the control lines and watching for smoke. The fire was declared to be contained by Friday, June 29.

Further north, the Dakota Fire, located 15 miles from Rapid City by Sheridan Lake, was contained by Saturday, 30 June after reaching 348 acres. Its cause undetermined, the fire burned in steep, rugged terrain and is estimated to have started on Tuesday, June 26 at around midnight.

Fire teams tackled the blaze by working to contain it between Spring Creek to the east and Highway 385 to the west. Burn-out operations were in progress by Thursday, June 28 with a total of 126 personnel involved in fighting the fire.

The largest of the South Dakota fires at almost 9,000 acres, White Draw was caused by a spark from a vehicle and, by Friday, July 6, a week after the blaze began, had reached 100 percent containment thanks to heavy rain experienced overnight. Located five miles northeast of Edgemont, more than 436 personnel worked to bring the fire under control.

At time of going to press, 70 personnel continued to work on the White Draw fire, restoring dozer lines, fixing fences, removing hazardous trees and patrolling for hot spots. The Burned Area Emergency Response Team is also on site to assess fire suppression efforts.

Pyrocumulus cloud over Sundance Mountain, caused by the Oil Creek fire. Associated with fires and volcanic activity, pyrocumulus clouds are produced by the intense heating of the air from the surface and contain severe turbulence that causes strong gusts at ground level, and sometimes lightning. (Sarah Pridgeon photo)

Four firefighters are reported to have lost their lives during the White Draw blaze. According to local officials, Lt. Col Paul Mikeal, Master Sgt. Robert Cannon, Maj. Joe McCormick and Captain Major Select Ryan Scott David of the Air National Guard, based in Charlotte, were killed when their C-130 cargo plane crashed en route to the fire on Sunday, July 1.

By Friday, cooler weather and less wind, as well as an evening of strong rain and thunderstorm, had aided firefighting efforts across the area. Firefighters continued to patrol and mop up fires throughout the Black Hills and, with warm, dry weather still in the forecast, the fire danger remained high.

“We appreciate everyone’s hard work on these difficult fires,” said Craig Bobzien, Black Hills National Forest Supervisor. “Again, we want to extend our deepest condolences to the families, friends and co-workers involved with the C-130 aircraft accident during the White Draw Fire. We send our best wishes to the survivors of the accident for a speedy recovery.”

Residents are reminded to use extreme caution with any outdoor activities that may cause a spark. Despite the recent rain, the land remains very dry and susceptible to fire; information about fire restrictions in place across the county can be found at www.crookcounty.wy.gov