By Lura Roti, for South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks
Proficiencies that Game, Fish & Parks staff typically put to use managing wildlife and their habitats became invaluable following Winter Storm Atlas, Oct. 4-5. A team of South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks personnel was called to action and joined the ranks of first responders.
Within 24-hours of its ending, GF&P staff were delivering oxygen to Rapid City residents, clearing livestock off highways; accessing remote, snowed in areas where citizens needed medical aide; searching for stranded hunters; clearing deer off Rapid City Regional Airport runway and helping restore emergency radio communication to a mountaintop radio tower.
"Our staff feels very proud that we were able to respond and help the public in any way that we could during this disaster," says Mike Kintigh, Regional Supervisor for S.D. GF&P. "Like all state employees, when there is a state emergency, we are on-call to assist with any equipment or expertise we possess."
Like their neighbors, Kintigh and his staff left homes without electricity and, in several cases, had to walk several blocks to reach cleared roads to be transported to the GF&P headquarters. By end of day Saturday they had dug out equipment and began responding to calls from the Emergency Operations Center.
"This storm was particularly trying - our staff were immobilized like everyone else. The first team member to make it to the office began picking up those of us who were stranded at home," Kintigh said. "We left our families behind to fend for themselves without power so we could respond to other's needs - that's what first responders do."
Along with staff, the departments' equipment played an important role in recovery efforts. Kintigh explained that because all state equipment and its operators are catalogued, in emergency situations, the state knows who to call.
The department's tracked UTVs were used to travel streets too snow packed for even four-wheel drive vehicles. Conservation Officer, Joe Keeton was one of the first responders assigned to deliver oxygen tanks to several Rapid City residents' whose oxygen machines quit when their homes' lost electricity in the storm.
"Losing electricity can be terrifying if you depend upon it to breath," explains Keeton, who has served as a GF&P conservation officer since 2004. "I was given a list of addresses and a truck full of oxygen tanks. I drove as close as I could with the four-wheel drive and then would unload the tracked UTV and drive the rest of the way."
A team of 10 GF&P staff were asked to help the Animal Industry Board with cattle carcass removal. The crew used four of the department's trucks that are equipped with front bumper, heavy duty winches and spent two days pulling cattle carcasses out of highway ditches to the road's shoulder so rendering trucks could haul them away.
"Storm clean up is dirty work, but our team was eager to help in any way we could," Kintigh said.
The tracked UTVs came in handy again when an emergency communication radio tower went out. Keeton and Conservation Officer, Josh Brainard, were asked to transport Adam Scott, a senior radio technician for Pennington County, up the switchback trails to the top of Seth Bullock Tower site. It took the three men four hours to make it up the 2-mile trail because of fallen trees.
"I know we cleared at least 24 downed trees. I've never seen anything like it," Scott said. "We would climb out of the UTV into snow that was 4-feet deep and then use the chainsaw to clear debris. By the end of the trip we'd become quite an effective tree clearing team."
Once Scott arrived at the tower, it took him about an hour to discover the maintenance issue and repair the backup generator.
"We were all relieved when he got the communication tower operating," Brainard recalls. "The work we did during the storm was very rewarding."