Wildland fire stats might be down but danger remains

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HILL CITY, S.D. (KOTA TV) - Two wildfires struck in the Black Hills Wednesday -- one near Rapid City and one near Spearfish -- and both were contained quickly. They were both small, torching a combined total of less than half an acre.

But add in that Wednesday carried a Red Flag warning for parts of the territory and you get a snapshot of this year's fire season: lots of small fires ... and lot of potential danger.

So far this year has been a relatively mild one in terms of wildfires in the Black Hills National Forest. Through the end of August 71 fires burned 1,200 acres. The 30-year average for a full year in the Hills? A 109 fires and almost 9,000 acres burned. The big reason is big spring rains that soaked the region.

"We had actually a pretty average number of fires across the Black Hills but our acreage was really low," said U.S. Forest Service Assistant Fire Manager for Fuels Chris Stover. "When we get rain, generally we get lightening. Lightening is the (fire) start. So we had plenty of lightening but because of the moisture we were able to keep those fires small. So we had an average number of fire starts and lower than average acres burned."

But no one is counting any chickens. The wet weather means lots of grass which dries out and turns into fuel.

"So the moisture we've had is going to be a concern for us in the spring," said Stover. "People don't really think about late winter early spring as being a fire season but, yet, it is and this grass is going to get us there."

So the Forest Service maintains a year-round fuel reduction program like one down by Hill City we went to check out.

Crews are crunching smaller ponderosa pines through a machine they call the Masticator which turns them into chips and mulch.

"The reason we're doing this project is to modify the fire behavior in this area," said Stover by laying the fuel down low to the ground so fires won't generally burn high and catch the taller tree limbs.

The main goal is safety for firefighters and residents and to save nearby homes and structures.

With a constant eye on potential dangers -- especially as conditions change over time and across the region.

"Today we have Red Flag warnings out for the south western quarter of the state," said S.D. State Fire Meteorologist Darren Clabo. "It's been dry down there with two to three weeks of absolutely no precipitation in a lot of these areas and this time of year we get a seasonal curing of the grasses and so we're starting to get to that fall fire season, that shoulder fire season, where we can burn a lot of acreage really really quickly, especially in the prairie this time of year."

Because here in the Black Hills, when it comes to fire, we're never out of the woods.