Crews try to exhaust Coal Canyon Fire in Black HillsPIERRE — A helicopter dropped fire-starting spheres the size of ping pong balls Monday on unburned areas around a South Dakota forest fire to eliminate fuel for the blaze that has killed one firefighter and injured four more.
By: CHET BROKAW , The Daily Republic
PIERRE — A helicopter dropped fire-starting spheres the size of ping pong balls Monday on unburned areas around a South Dakota forest fire to eliminate fuel for the blaze that has killed one firefighter and injured four more.
Firefighters decided to try to starve the fire because it was too dangerous to have crews attack it directly in the steep, rough terrain in the southwest corner of the state, Incident Commander Jay Esperance said.
They finished burning areas along 25 miles of roads surrounding the fire to create a buffer zone Sunday, and then focused Monday on igniting brush and unburned areas left in the fire zone so there would be nothing left to burn.
“We want everything black,” Esperance said.
Lightning sparked the fire Thursday, and by early Monday, it had grown to more than 5,100 acres, or 8 square miles. With more than 450 people fighting it, officials said the fire was about 30 percent contained.
Having a helicopter drop fire bombs inside the fire zone to destroy the flames’ fuel was much safer than sending crews directly onto the fire, Esperance said, adding, “Everything we do, we base around safety.”
No roads have been closed and no people have been evacuated.
But on Thursday, strong winds spread the fire, trapping 23-year-old firefighter Trampus Haskvitz of Hot Springs and others between two burning areas.
The 14- to 20-foot flames proved too great for their protective shelters, officials said. Haskvitz was killed, and four other firefighters were injured. Haskvitz’s funeral is today in Hot Springs.
The most seriously injured firefighter, Austin Whitney of Hot Springs, is being treated in Colorado for burns over 13 percent of his body. His father, Robert Whitney, said on Sunday that his son was healing nicely.
Esperance’s incident management team, trained to deal with complex fires, took over Friday evening from another team that mounted the initial attack. He couldn’t predict when the fire would be contained but said igniting unburned areas inside the perimeter should help firefighters wrap it up.
“If the firing operation is successful, crews expect to make rapid progress toward containment of the fire,” Esperance said.
Steep canyons and drainages have made it hard for firefighters to move through the area, he said. Most of it is timber, with some grass and brush. A bad storm apparently hit the area more than a decade ago, leaving easily ignited dead wood on the ground, he said.
The nearest buildings are about a mile from the fire, but engine crews have been placed near them in case the fire spread, Esperance said.
Mark Hollenbeck, a rancher who lives in the area, said he lost 60 to 80 acres of grass when a crew burned out acres of his land. Some neighbors have lost space to graze cattle, but otherwise the fire has not disrupted life because it’s in a remote area, he said.
“It was grazing land and real rough. Nobody went back in there anyway,” Hollenbeck said.
A lack of timber cutting in the Black Hills has left a lot of fuel in the area, which makes fires difficult to extinguish, he said.
Area residents are praying for Haskvitz’s family, he added.
“Compared to what they lost, the rest of us lost nothing,” Hollenbeck said.