There’s never been a Black Hills summer fire season like this one.
U.S. Forest Service records indicate the South Dakota-Wyoming forest is experiencing its fewest summer fires and smallest acreage burned.
"We've had 31 fires for 8 acres on the forest," said Jason Virtue, assistant fire management officer at the forest supervisor’s office at Custer. “Right now, we’re sitting in really good shape.”
Despite incidents sharply under the average 105 fires and 11,000 acres burned in the Black Hills, firefighters are not putting their feet up and relaxing.
"We have a large number of folks who participated in incident management teams and have been out helping the cause in the Northwest — Oregon, Washington and also California," Virtue said.
Governors of California and Oregon declared emergencies after a series of fires over several months destroyed thousands of homes and forced evacuations of thousands. In California alone, firefighters battled more than 1,500 fires between January and June.
The Forest Service estimates fires on federal lands will cost taxpayers over $1.8 billion this year. A national fund transfers money to forest districts needing it most.
To avoid West Coast-size disasters here, federal and Rapid City forest managers are planning prescribed burns and thinning timber stands.
The goal for Rapid City’s project is "... if there is a fire on the ground, it will stay on the ground. That's really the key," fire department Lt. Tim Weaver said.
It will take a year to thin overgrown trees in Wilderness Park and remove its ponderosa trees killed by mountain pine beetles. The cleanup will reduce “ladder” fuels that help flames climb and then leap from tree to tree across Skyline Drive.
"That's something that we do not want in a forest that we are managing, in particular one that's right in the center of town," Weaver said.
Rain and higher humidity lowering the fire danger in the Black Hills today may be slowing prescribed burns. That could be growing a future firefighting challenge.
"With the grass crop that we have, if that carries over through the winter to next year, that could pose a problem for us next year," Virtue said.