Rain Douses S.D. Wildfire that Killed One, Injured Two

July 10, 2007

Overnight rain and cooler temperatures dealt a “priceless” blow to a wildfire that has killed a homeowner, injured two firefighters and destroyed 27 houses, a top fire official said early Monday.

Joe Lowe, state wildland fire coordinator, told crews at the morning briefing, held in a light rain, that the better weather gave them a chance to shore up the fire lines, though conditions could change for the worse.

“This fire is not over yet,” he said. “This fire could come back to life again.”

More than 425 firefighters now staff the Alabaugh Canyon Fire, which covers an estimated 11 square miles just southwest of Hot Springs.

Lightning sparked it Saturday evening. The dry ground, gusty winds and heat fueled the blaze and prompted the highest measurement ever recorded in the Black Hills for a wildfire’s intensity, Lowe said.

“This thing blew up because of extreme hot temperatures and the winds,” he said. “It came out of the canyon with a vengeance.”

Crews have contained 20 percent of the fire and expect to have it fully contained by Thursday.

State Highway 71, which cuts through the fire, remained closed Monday morning.

About 50 houses in several subdivisions were evacuated, forcing about 100 people to seek shelter at the local community center or find other accomodations. Besides 27 homes, 50 other buildings have also been destroyed. The owners of those places evacuated were sent to the community center and were to be notified Monday of the damage.

The person killed near Hot Springs was a middle-aged man who returned to his property to retrieve personal possessions. His name won’t be released until sometime Monday because family members had not yet been notified, the sheriff’s office said.

Gov. Mike Rounds toured the area Sunday and complimented firefighters for sparing numerous houses, though the trees around them were charred.

“I don’t know how in the world you saved some of those homes,” he told firefighters at an evening briefing.

Twenty-six homes had no damage because of a high-tech gel that looks like Petroleum jelly but essentially is water-filled bubbles.

The U.S. Forest Service said two firefighters were injured early Sunday morning when the winds shifted quickly and they both sought cover from the flames in a tent-like fire shelter designed for one person.

One of them received first- and second-degree burns to his hands and a superficial burn to the face. The other firefighter received superficial burns to his face. Neither had airway damage.

One remained in the hospital at last report but the other had been released.

“Those winds kicked up and obviously those firefighters got into harm’s way due to the weather conditions changing,” said Gary Chancey, spokesman for Northern Great Plains Joint Information Center.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency on Sunday authorized the use of federal money to help with firefighting costs.

The authorization makes FEMA funding available to pay 75 percent of the states eligible firefighting costs under an approved grant for managing, mitigating and controlling designated fires.

The state’s firefighting resources took a hit Saturday when an air tanker fighting a 300-acre fire near Kyle on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation crashed. The pilot walked away but was checked for injuries at the Pine Ridge hospital.

Five large helicopters and four larger planes were deployed Monday to fight the Hot Springs fire. Firefighters on the ground were warned to watch out for a large power line that had fallen overnight.

About 12,000 lightning strikes were recorded in the last few days across southeast Wyoming, southwest South Dakota and northwest Nebraska and several of those sparked other fires in the Black Hills and surrounding grasslands.

Hot Springs is home to several tourist attractions and near Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Crazy Horse Memorial and Badlands National Park.

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