Drought continues to plague state: Numerous grass fires keeping area departments busy

It's been a busy week for local and area firefighters, who have braved scorching temperatures and dry conditions in an effort to battle what seems like continuous grass fires across the central part of the state.

It's been a busy week for local and area firefighters, who have braved scorching temperatures and dry conditions in an effort to battle what seems like continuous grass fires across the central part of the state.

Dozens of fire departments have responded to several area grass fires in the 17-county area.

Gov. Mike Rounds has declared a statewide emergency to help move firefighters and their equipment around the state to fight the growing number of wildfires caused by the drought.

Due to dry conditions and the possibility of damaging grass fires, a number of area counties have issued burn bans. The area counties with burn bans are Hanson, Lyman, Tripp, Buffalo, Brule, Jerauld, Aurora, Davison, Douglas, Miner and McCook.

No department in the area has felt the heat more than the Emery Fire Department, which lost its water tanker truck in an accident last weekend that injured two volunteer firemen, Darin Kayser and Herbert Albin, both of Emery.


Emery Fire Chief Brian Leitheiser said the department is in the process of replacing the tanker, which could cost anywhere from $120,000 to $140,000. Another problem is that it could take up to a year for the department to get a new tanker, although Leitheiser said "we will have one before that."

In the meantime, a private business has given the department permission to use its equipment in case of an emergency, he said.

Since the accident, Kayser has been transported to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for broken bones. Albin has returned home, said Leitheiser.

In the northwest section of the Mitchell region, fire crews were on the scene of a large grass fire in northern Buffalo County since last Saturday morning. Finally, fire crews cleared the area around 10 a.m. Thursday.

The main fire, located about seven miles north and 3½ miles west of the junction of Highways 34 and 45, grew to about 2,000 acres in size, said Gann Valley Fire Chief Lee Pawlowski.

Six other fires popped up in the wake of lightning storms that swept the area late last Saturday and Sunday, he said.

Crews from Chamberlain, Kimball, White Lake, Pukwana, Fort Thompson, Miller, south Hand County, Wessington Springs, and the Spring Valley and Millerdale colonies, along with about 150 other people, turned out to fight the blaze, Pawlowski said.

The community also helped by bringing in food and water for the fireman.


"There wasn't a lot of people in the way," he said. "A lot of people were busy."

And while no major injuries were reported, Pawlowski said that a few firefighters suffered from heat-related issues.

In Mitchell, the city's fire crews have responded to nine grass fires within the last week. Four of those fires occurred north of the city and one to the south. Three were near Mount Vernon and another was in Hanson County, said Steve Nevded, the city's fire marshal.

"It's been a busy week," he said.

Several area volunteer fire departments also have been busy with grass fires.

Chamberlain Fire Chief Gary Dominiack said the department responded to two grass fires last week, and assisted Platte with a grass fire near Academy.

"With the wind and the heat, any small fire can become a big one real fast," Dominiack said "We have been fortunate."

The Platte Fire Department has experienced several grass fires in its vicinity, including one last weekend in Academy, and another Wednesday, seven miles south of town, said Rick Gustad, Platte fire chief.


"It's really tough on people," he said.

It's also been tough financially for the department to keep the vehicle fueled and the firefighters hydrated.

"The fuel bill gets up there," Gustad said. "I think we have a bill for $500 for bottled water."

Like Platte, Wagner Fire Chief Chad Peters said his department has responded to two grass fires in the last week, but had battled five fires the week before.

"I would call it an average year (for grass fires)," Peters said. "We have been dry for the last several years."

Even sections of the state where the grass is a little greener have had grass fires.

Last Friday, Tyndall firemen responded to a grass fire that charred nearly 30 acres of stubble. Last Saturday, the department responded to a hay bale fire, said Ron Wagner, Tyndall fire chief.

"We are in good shape," Wagner said. "We are a little greener than those west of us."


The biggest problem still is in the central, north and west parts of the state.

Murdo Fire Chief Rich Sylva said a lightning storm sparked a grass fire that destroyed nearly 50 acres of land last week about 15 miles southwest of the city.

"We haven't had any rain," he said. "We are just keeping our fingers crossed."

In Presho, another dry area, Fire Chief Donny Manger said his department hasn't had any grass fires in the immediate area since July 7, when a number of fires started because of lightning.

Last Sunday, the crew assisted Fort Pierre with a grass fire that burned about 3,500 acres of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands. Several other area crews also assisted, including Murdo, Vivian, Kennebec, Winner and Lower Brule.

As for the Presho area itself, it's been relatively quiet -- so far, Manger said.

"We haven't had anything serious," he said, but added: "We are pretty dry."

Fire crews in Tripp County have responded to fires in Mobridge, Pierre and Valentine, Neb.


"We've been fortunate here in Tripp County, but I know the crews have been out helping those who have been less fortunate," Tripp County Sheriff Chip Schroeder said.

In Miner County, Carthage and Howard fire crews where on scene of a fire earlier this week, said Pat Grassel, fire chief in Howard.

It's one of several fires the department has battled in the last week, he said.

Aside from a few firemen reporting heat-related problems, no other serious injuries were reported.

"Let's pray for rain," said Peters.

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