South Dakota Sees Increase in Wildfire Numbers and Intensity

October 31, 2012

Record heat and extended drought sparked a huge increase in the number and severity of wildfires in South Dakota this year, forcing the state to spend nearly five times what it spent to battle blazes last year.

The number of wildfires nearly doubled from 2011 to 2012, putting a strain on the budgets of small fire departments, causing the cancellations of July 4 fireworks displays, leading to a ban on open campfires and causing stress among firefighters, according to the Rapid City Journal.

The battle against the fires also turned deadly in July, when a plane crash killed four members of the North Carolina Air National Guard who were helping fight a fire in the southern Black Hills.

The state has spent about $4.5 million fighting wildfires so far this year, up from $970,000 a year ago.

Firefighters in South Dakota this year fought 1,113 fires that burned more than 103,000 acres, or 161 square miles. South Dakota last year had only 631 fires that burned 65,000 acres, or 101 square miles, according to the state Agriculture Department.

Jim Strain, chief fire management officer for the South Dakota Wildland Fire Division, said the number of fires and the area burned were “way above normal.”

The increased state spending came mainly from the use of more aircraft to fight the fires, Strain said. The land was so dry that aircraft were required to get even small fires contained, he said.

“There is a strong correlation between the overall aviation cost and the fire cost,” Strain said.

The area had the hottest July since 1936, with the average high at 92.5 degrees and a temperature exceeding 100 degrees on five days. Precipitation was scarce, with nearly 80 percent of the state in severe, extreme or exceptional drought earlier this month.

The Myrtle Fire near Pringle burned more than 10,000 acres, while the Longhorn Complex fires near St. Francis burned about 44,000 acres, or 69 square miles. The White Draw Fire near Edgemont, scorched more than 9,000 acres.

Fuel cost and wear and tear on vehicles hurt some volunteer fire departments, but they will be reimbursed for some expenses depending on where fires were located.

The New Underwood Volunteer Fire Department, located about 20 miles east of Rapid City, received 36 fire calls in 2011. It has answered more than 140 calls so far this year. Calls in Custer are up 30 percent from a year ago.

However, officials said the frequent news reports about wildfires helped recruit new firefighters.

“Something about it sparks their interest, and they call,” said Denny Gorton, Pennington County Fire Service manager.

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