Wildfire!

Wildfire 2013

My family and I live “up in the trees” as they say here in western South Dakota. We live at 3800+ ft elevation in the Ponderosa Pine forest of the Black Hills.

I find it interesting when I travel across the United States, how often others say when I tell them I live in western South Dakota, “Oh I’m sorry!”

They really have no clue what it is like here.

Last week I was in Kansas City. Someone said, “Oh you should move to Kansas, it’s very beautiful. You’d love it.”

To which I replied, “I’m sure it is very nice, but it is not as beautiful as where I live…”

They tried to convince me otherwise and started listing all the positives of living in Kansas: strong midwestern sense of community, good schools, etc.

We have all that, of course- plus beautiful scenery, countless outdoor recreational opportunities, mild winters (for the Midwest), cool dry summers (without the unbearable humidity of places further east)

It is true; much of the rest of the state of South Dakota is either the Great Plains prairie- or where there is more moisture further east, cultivated farmland.

But that is not how it is where we live.

The Black Hills are mountains and foothills, some approaching almost 7000 ft elevation at their highest. It was the ancestral home of the Lakota and other indigenous people, and remains a special sacred place.

One does not need to be Native American to understand that the Black Hills are special beyond only their physical beauty and unique geography. The connection and love one feels for a place is difficult to describe in words. It is as if this land has become almost an extension of myself. I can only begin to imagine how someone might feel whose family has lived here for generations.

Here, as in much of the mountain west, the Ponderosa Pine is the climax species. The Ponderosa is a species born of fire. The natural history of Ponderosa pine forests is for there to by low intensity brush and grass fires every 5 or 10 years. Pine cones open in the heat of a fire; the seedlings sprout eagerly afterwards.

More recently, with human  intervention, such low intensity fires do not happen as often.

Years of fire suppression combined with years of drought and acres of pines killed by the mountain pine beetles and needle blight- are a recipe for more severe and widespread intense-hot full-canopy fires.

Every place has its share of natural disasters to worry about. There are earthquakes in California, hurricanes in Florida, tsunamis in Alaska and tornadoes in Oklahoma. Nowhere is completely immune.

Here our greatest fear is forest fire.

Last summer, when smoke drifted in at 2AM from forest fires 100s of miles to the west, I was awakened from sleep. I could not go back to bed until I had walked outside and reassured myself by making sure the glow of flames was not to be seen.

Last year, the first wild fire of the season was in March. Normally our forest fire season does not begin until June or July. The drought is partly to blame.

Well, in 2013 it turns out that the first brush fire of the year in the Black Hills happened to be on our property!

On Monday, the day after Easter, Nathaniel went out to feed the chickens and let them out of their coop. He noticed smoke a few hundred yards away.

He went over to investigate. Fire was burning in the grass and brush. Nathan tried to beat the flames down with a large stick but immediately realized the futility of it.

He ran to our cabin and told Jeanne.

It was right about this time that I called home to talk to Jeanne as I often do over my lunch hour.

Nathan answered the phone.

I asked where Mom was, “Oh she’s out fighting the fire.” He said it as if it were a completely normal and expected thing for her to be out doing on a Monday over the lunch hour.

What?!?! A FIRE?!?!!?” I responded.

Yeah Dad, we have a fire burning.”

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I hung up and called Jeanne on her cell phone. She was out at the brush fire.

The sheriff and fire fighters had been notified but they not yet arrived at the scene.

Jeanne was amazingly calm. She was much calmer than I would have been. My wife is an amazing woman.

Being a work day, none of our neighbors were home. It was fortunate that the fire happened to occur on the day after Easter, Nathan was out of school and at home and he went out to feed the chickens when he did.

It is also fortunate that like his Mom and Dad, Nathan is one of those people who is usually pretty observant of his surroundings.

Many people might have walked outside looking only at the ground and never noticed the smoke rising on the horizon. There is no telling how long this fire could have burned if Nathan had not seen it.

The fire came across our property line from our neighbors. The week before, there were a few inches of snow and they burned their brush as is legally permitted when there is snow on the ground. Most of us stack brush piles from firewood-cutting and brush-thinning waiting for such snowy days so we can safely and legally burn.

The following weekend, they put new dry brush over the same area where they had burned the previous week.

Big mistake.

Hot embers can remain for weeks or even months. The embers caught the brush on fire- then it spread to the neighboring grass.

All told, it burned about a half-acre total before it was extinguished.

We are fortunate to let our horses graze down our late summer pastures in our forest fairly aggressively. We do this on purpose. Grazing off the dead brown grass in the late summer does nothing harmful to the living grass roots underground. It does remove fuel for to minimize the severity of wild fires such as this.

Also fortunately the trees on our land have already been thinned very well by the previous owners.

If the fire had burned another couple hundreds yard onto another neighbors property which has not been thinned, it might have gotten into the trees themselves instead of burning only grass, fallen pine needles and brush. The situation could been an entirely different.

Our neighbors called and apologized. They felt absolutely terrible. I can only imagine how bad I would have felt if it were me who had caused the fire.

Of course, feeling sorry about something that was unintentional and accidental still would not replace a house- or a lost life. Luckily, it was only some grass and brush that burned and nothing else. This fire could definitely could have been much worse- much much worse- it is frightening to think about what it could have happened had the day been windier.

And hey, I just realized that there is a positive side—-at least now we have a nice fire-break already burned to protect us for the next time our neighbors accidentally start any more wild fires….

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