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Wildfire management requires fast action from locals

Wendy Sweeter for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 May 2017
the 2,500 acre Wolf Fire near Quinn, SD

Ranchers in the Upper Midwest are no strangers to prairie fires.

Jim Strain, deputy director of the Wildland Fire Division in the South Dakota Department of Agriculture, notes ranchers from Canada to Texas know all too well the danger of fire popping up on their land. A lot of the land in that area is similar.

He shares that the primary fire season in South Dakota is before spring green-up in March and April, and fall after warm-season grasses turn brown.

“If there’s drought conditions, then the summer can be prime for large-scale prairie fires,” Strain says.

The state uses the Governor’s Drought Task Force when experiencing drought. Former Gov. Mike Rounds – now Sen. Rounds – started the group in 2007. Current Gov. Dennis Daugaard has continued the program, activating it in 2012 and 2016.

The task force is activated when the National Drought Monitor indicates level D2 or level D3 anywhere in the state. The task force then authorizes the Wildland Fire Division to get more resources to the areas of the state in drought to assist local fire departments.

Strain notes they had 14 counties on standby for aid in July and August last year. Last year’s Cottonwood Fire was the largest recorded fire in the month of October in the state since 1949. Strain notes it was the most devastating fire he has ever seen in his years in the fire business since 1979.

When the state sends out its helicopters to dip buckets from water sources to put out fires, Strain notes state law says they have to refill any water taken from a stock dam after the fire is contained.

“Under South Dakota state law, we have an obligation to put back what we use,” Strain says. “No ranch has to pay for it.… The water is for public use, and we will replace any water we use. Our helicopters keep track of how much they take out.”

Most communities in South Dakota, and particularly in central and western South Dakota, rely on volunteer fire departments to respond to fires. Oral, South Dakota, rancher Carl Sanders in Fall River County in southwestern South Dakota is one of those volunteers.

Sanders says most ranchers in his area are on the volunteer fire department in their communities. His district is about 25 miles long but not very wide. In cases where they are called for mutual aid, they travel 30 to 40 miles to assist other departments.

Sanders says dry lightning storms are the worst threat to start a prairie fire.

“A dry lightning storm is our biggest threat. We’ve had that in years past. We had a pretty big one last year, and a couple of years ago we had one about this time of year,” Sanders says.

Strain notes in any given year about 60 percent of the prairie fires are caused by humans and 40 percent by lightning.

“Lightning can be especially tough in drought years in rangeland areas because you get a dry lightning storm come through, which our ranchers know is a thunderstorm with hardly any rain but a lot of lightning,” Strain says. “When that hits a drought area, you can get 15 to 20 lightning fires going at once.”

In cases when thunderstorms are predicted, Sanders and other volunteer firefighters go out and watch for lightning fires to start.

“A lot of times when they’re suspecting thunderstorms and see lightning popping up, we’ll go sit up on the ridge with the fire truck and watch,” Sanders says.

When a fire starts, whoever spots it first calls into dispatch, and they send out the location to the fire departments on their cellphones. Strain says to make sure the neighbors know you have a fire after calling 911.

For anyone fighting a fire, Strain suggests they be trained properly first. Fires should be attacked from the rear and not out in front because the wind will push the fire that way and become a very dangerous place.

As far as prevention goes, Strain recommends using common sense and operating vehicles in a safe manner off-road. Make sure farm equipment like swathers, windrowers and balers are in good working order, are well greased and maintained, and also include a fire extinguisher on all equipment.

Sanders says those steps have become second nature to many ranchers, and they teach those things to the next generation.

Strain also notes electric fences need to be maintained and should be free of brush or flammable material coming in contact with it. Many places maintain a fire break around a ranch place.

“Make sure you maintain a mowed fire break around the place during the summer and fall fire season so if a fire starts toward the place and no one’s around, at least the flames will drop to the ground and not be so conducive to start some buildings, fences or corrals on fire,” Strain says. “Maintain defensible space around the place.

It keeps the fire on the ground at a shorter flame length, and your neighbors or your fire departments can come in and help you protect your place and push the fire around it.”

Strain suggests if there is a way to cut fence to move livestock through to get them away from the fire, that is good action.

“There’s nothing that moves faster than a prairie fire on a hot, windy day. The more action you can take by moving cattle and stock in front of the fire and get them out, that’s really important; just don’t endanger your life to do so,” Strain says.  end mark

Wendy Sweeter
  • Wendy Sweeter

  • Freelance Writer
  • Worthing, South Dakota
  • Email Wendy Sweeter

Kansas departments release wildland fire action guide

Wildland fire is a real threat, as evidenced across the state of Kansas this spring. The Kansas Forest Service has teamed up with K-State Research and Extension, the Office of the state Fire Marshal and the International Association of Fire Chiefs to customize a Wildland Fire Action Guide specific to Kansas.

The guide was prepared by the IAFC’s Ready, Set, Go! Program, which works to develop and improve the dialogue between fire departments and the residents they serve.

Engaging in this dialogue is particularly important because national studies have shown firefighters are respected in their communities and can project a trusted voice to the public preparedness appeal.

They can also explain what fire resources are available during an event and the role individuals can play in preparedness and, if called for, early evacuation to increase the safety of residents and responding firefighters to a wildland fire.

Paper copies of the Kansas Wildland Fire Action Guide are available at the Kansas Forest Service state office in Manhattan. The guide is also available online on the Kansas Forest Service fire prevention webpage (Kansas Forest Service - fire prevention).