The weather this fall across much of South Dakota has been unseasonably warm and dry. The mild weather, though, has caused an extended fire season in the state. The South Dakota Department of Agriculture has five divisions, one of which is the Wildland Fire Division. This division helps fight fires across the state as well as provides many other services and resources to local communities to ensure our firefighters have the tools and skills to fight fires safely and successfully. Below, Wildland Fire’s division director, Jay Esperance, shares a glimpse into what our firefighters do and the kind of fire season we have had this year.
“This year, South Dakota experienced one of the longest lasting wildfire seasons on record. Large fire activity started statewide in April with the warm spring weather. The active fire season, particularly in western South Dakota, prompted Governor Daugaard’s Drought Task Force to declare a 13 county area ‘Red Zone’ in western South Dakota. This designation allowed the state to assist counties that fought large, expensive fires.
“During July the 18,000 acre Freeman fire in Oglala Lakota County and the 14,000 acre Indian Canyon Fire in Fall River County kept state resources busy. The fire season then slowed in August and early September with timely rains, but an extended drying period brought drought conditions back to the western half of the state. These conditions created optimal fire conditions when the 41,000 acre Cottonwood Fire in Jackson County was ignited. This fire is the largest fire in state history for the month of October since 1949. Unseasonable warm conditions have extended the fire season into November with large fire activity still occurring in portions of the state.
“It’s been a busy season across the country too. When needed, our team travels across the country to assist in fighting fires in other states. This year our team has been assigned to fires in Colorado, Wyoming and North Carolina. These fires are complex and require team members to be completely engaged in activities in order to be safe and successful. I am passionate and committed to being an advocate of the safety of wildland firefighters and am proud of our team for taking safety seriously.
“Although our firefighting efforts tend to claim most of the glory, I am very proud of all aspects of the division. Our training program is currently in the planning process for three academies across the state. These academies offer training for state, federal and volunteer firefighters so they have the knowledge and skills to fight fire safely. The fuels mitigation program continues to accomplish thinning projects in the Black Hills in between responding to fires. The prescribed fire program is active in providing assistance with the planning and implementation of prescribed burn projects across the state to make sure they are done safely and only burn what has been targeted to burn. The fire prevention program continues to grow through cooperatively working with our interagency partners on projects to communicate and teach safety around fire. Finally, none of this work would be possible without the dedication and diligence of our administrative staff who make sure the phones get answered and the bills get paid.
“Our Wildland Fire Division is committed to protecting South Dakota’s forests, homes, farms and ranches from fire and to bringing everyone home safely. I am proud of the work we’ve done this year extinguishing over 550 fires.”
As we take time to celebrate Thanksgiving with our friends and families, I would like to thank all the volunteers, state employees and federal partners who have worked tirelessly this year to protect our homes and communities. I would also ask that as you gather with family, you keep in your thoughts and prayers those firefighters and their families who are unable to be together during this holiday season.