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Fire season has already begun

Unless the long-term weather forecast undergoes a pretty dramatic change, 2022 is shaping up to be another potentially dangerous fire season. Fire Warden Doug Leis is warning Crook County citizens to take care when burning slash piles even now, and expects there will be fire restrictions in place as early as April.

“The conditions right now are the same as what they would be in September, really. It’s not greened up and if we don’t get some moisture, we’re not going to get a lot of green-up,” he says.

“These spring fire conditions are as bad as fall.”

The already dry conditions left over from last year’s drought-ridden summer have led to a number of fires already, including a blaze in the heavy timber of the Black Elk Wilderness Area on the South Dakota side of the Black Hills. The fire was kept to five acres thanks to the efforts of federal and local resources, including a hand crew of approximately 20 personnel, two Blackhawk helicopters from the South Dakota National Guard and a type 3 helicopter. 

“They [also] had a pretty good fire in Colorado this weekend and we had two last week up on the Mona Road,” Leis says.

The local fires involved slash piles that were started last winter.

“They just lay there and smoldered and everything dried out enough and the wind picked up some embers and got them going,” Leis says.

“We’ve had a few little ones here and there over the winter. It’s been kind of like last year: a fire every month of the year. It’s been a crazy dry spell.”

With drought warnings ongoing and little moisture in the forecast, Leis believes we’re looking at another year of perfect fire conditions.

“That’s the way it’s looking right now,” he says. Though there is precipitation on the forecast for this week, “It dries up again after that.”

With current conditions in mind, Leis doesn’t think it will be too long before the county is forced to impose restrictions.

“If it doesn’t change, we’ll be in a fire ban by April,” he says. “I hate to do it, but we have to.”

In the meantime, Leis recommends extreme caution when burning slash piles on your property. It may still be early in the year, but conditions are already primed for burns to get out of control.

“When the weather gets nice, everybody wants to go out and clean stuff up, and you always want to burn that stuff. But it’s just super, super dry out there so we want people to be aware,” he says.

Leis would also like to make sure citizens are aware of their responsibilities when it comes to a fire that begins on their land but then crosses property lines.

“People need to realize that, if they start a fire on their place, I guess it’s not so bad, but as soon as that fire leaves their property, they are responsible for damages and suppression costs,” he says.

“It happens every year.”

The need for early fire restrictions echoes the countywide situation last year, when volunteer firefighters found themselves responding to numerous incidents every week, including one on the outskirts of Pine Haven that had the potential to threaten residences and several structure fires that sadly destroyed homes.

It was through a combination of luck and effort that Crook County avoided any thousand-acre blazes, Leis says.

“We had a hell of a good crew last year. I’m really proud of the firefighters in this county and I keep telling them that at our meetings, because they get out there and they get on these fires early, and that’s made a really big difference,” Leis says.

“That and the fact that we flat got lucky on some fires. The conditions were right for an alignment fire and we never had one, we were very fortunate. Then the storms quit and fire season kind of backed down, and I think by the time that happened, everybody was pretty scared and they really paid attention to what was going on.”

The initial attacks on fires last year really made the difference, Leis says, sharing how confident he feels in the men and women who make up the county’s fire response. He expects they will answer the call with just as much skill and determination this summer.

“There’s a really, really good bunch of volunteer firefighters in this county who really step up when there’s a need to,” he says.

Leis asks everyone to be extra careful with fire in the coming months, especially with lightning season around the corner. If you plan to burn on your property, he asks that you please contact the Crook County Sheriff’s Office ahead of time.

“It’s not a law, but it is a common courtesy to notify Dispatch if you’re going to have a controlled burn so that, when they start getting 15 or 20 calls about smoke in the air, they know what’s going on,” he says.

Spirit of cooperation

Commissioner Jeanne Whalen offers advice for new landowners, recent arrivals or anyone who may need a refresher on being prepared to report and handle a fire incident on your property.

• Check to find out which fire zone your property is located in. Provide this information to Dispatch when you call 911 to help launch a response quickly and efficiently.

• Get to know your land,” Whalen says. Be aware of how to navigate your property, especially to areas with no obvious routes.

• Be present at your property if possible to help guide firefighters to the incident site. If you cannot be there, inform Dispatch of the best way onto your property and available routes to the fire.

• Have water available for volunteers as they work on the fire. Food is not usually necessary for a small incident, but snacks may be appreciated if available.

• Once firefighters have concluded suppression efforts, it will be your responsibility to babysit the site for 24 to 48 hours to ensure the fire stays out. The county’s firefighters are volunteers, Whalen says, and need to return to their jobs and other responsibilities.

• Following the incident, a donation would be appreciated by your local fire zone or the county to help cover the costs of responding to your fire. Donations go into the fire funds and are used to, for example, fix equipment, Whalen says. The average donation is around $200, but any amount, larger or smaller, is appreciated.

• If you are planning to be absent for a while, arrange for someone who knows your land to be available to guide firefighters during the incident and caretake the site in the aftermath.

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