PIERRE Although a recent snowstorm helped a bit, a lack of heavy snow this past winter across much of South Dakota has made officials nervous about the potential for wildfires this spring in South Dakota.
Many believe it was a near miracle not to have had major Black Hills forest fires last summer.
“We kind of dodged the bullet,” Steve Hasenohrl, assistant chief for administration with the state Division of Wildland Fire Suppression, said. “The only large fire we had was over in Wyoming the Basin Draw Fire.
“Whether we will be that fortunate this year or not, it’s hard to say. If we don’t get some moisture, it could certainly be a very active fire season.
“We do rely on our spring moisture whether that’s very wet snows or rains very heavily to improve dry conditions in the Black Hills, and we just haven’t had the moisture yet.”
Below-average moisture last year in western South Dakota and the Black Hills raised the fire danger, and conditions will not improve without significant moisture, he said.
But the lack of moisture is not all bad.
“Because moisture is short, we haven’t seen as much undergrowth in the forest. So there isn’t as much to burn as there could be if we were coming off a wet cycle and going into a dry cycle. The vegetation isn’t there,” Hasenohrl said.
Dry weather is also a worry in some eastern counties. County commissioners in Spink and Brown counties have banned open burning, and some others require permits before burning is allowed.
Prairie fires pushed by strong winds spread quickly and can consume thousands of acres.
Kenneth Buchholz, a Spink County commissioner, said the ban on burning in that county likely would be lifted after fields begin to get green.
“The whole countryside is dry. Everything is brown, and it wouldn’t take much to get it started burning,” he said.
Farmers occasionally burn their fields to improve growing conditions, and Buchholz said they can get special permits for controlled burning of fields in Spink County.
“If conditions are right, it’s no big deal,” he said.
But Buchholz said those who let burning get out of control will have to reach into their pocketbooks. “If you start a fire, it’s your responsibility.”
State law makes people responsible for the cost of fighting runaway fires that are started in fields, woods, marshes or prairie land.
Although counties can restrict or ban open burning, the state fire marshal also has that power under a 2001 law. First, the fire marshal must consult with the governor and county commissioners.
Black Hills snow levels were at near-record lows this past winter, although March and April typically bring the heaviest snows of the year. Unless moisture comes soon, fire officials predict an early and busy fire season.
Black Hills agencies and firefighters will respond quickly whenever blazes start in the forest, Hasenohrl said.
A recent fire in rough terrain in Custer State Park could have been bad had it not been for speedy action and some luck.
“The wind was blowing like crazy. The fire was in the trees, and there were structures threatened,” he said.
“Luckily, it was in a place where it wasn’t getting the full brunt of the wind, and it was on a slope that was leaning up into the direction of the wind. The normal tendency of a fire is to burn uphill and with the wind, but it was trying to burn uphill with the wind blowing against it,” Hasenohrl said.
The Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center in Colorado reports there were 1,734 wildfires in South Dakota last year, burning about 33 square miles.
The largest fire last year in the Black Hills covered about 7 square miles, most of it in Wyoming. A fire that started in Custer County and burned about 28 square miles, also reaching into Wyoming, was the largest blaze of 2003.
There were two large forest fires in 2002. Grizzly Gulch Fire destroyed seven homes, forced the evacuation of Deadwood and Lead and charred 18 square miles. Battle Creek Fire south of Rapid City burned 21 square miles and came within two miles of Mount Rushmore.
The largest recorded Black Hills forest fire was the 2000 Jasper Fire, which was set near Jewel Cave in Custer County. It spread across more than 130 square miles and took more than two weeks to control.
Janice Stevenson, 50, of Newcastle, Wyo., admitted starting the blaze. She was given a 25-year prison term and will be eligible for parole for the first time in 2017.