PIERRE, S.D. — Shane Penfield with the fire department in Lemmon, S.D., paused for a moment on Wednesday, March 31, when asked if the fire that burned 16,000 acres across the South Dakota-North Dakota state line two months ago was unusual.
"It's strange," Penfield said. "But it's not out of the ordinary."
Penfield adds he's fought grass fires in below-zero temperatures. But the size, just two weeks into January, that's different.
"We have grass fires in January, but normally they are contained to a lot smaller areas."
The dual fires currently burning in South Dakota's Black Hills — one coming within a mile of Mount Rushmore and the other with flames barking at Rapid City's western border, forcing hundreds to evacuate — aren't unusual for late March, say wildland fire experts.
But they do signal an early start to fire season when the state isn't as well-positioned to respond.
"It's really early to be doing this," said Gov. Kristi Noem at a news conference on Tuesday, March 30. "We're probably the first in the nation this year for 2021 facing this kind of situation. And nationwide, some of the resources that normally would be available to us during fire-fighting season just weren't set up yet because it's so early in the year."
The governor's office did not respond to a request for clarification on the resources to which she alluded. But an hour after Tuesday's news conference, she announced through executive order a "state of emergency" due to the drought and increased risk of fires through June 1.
Noem said the high temperatures, low humidity, and high wind create "serious peril for our state."
Experts caution it's not that fires can't be fought in spring weather, but it means the force is largely volunteer. The national tools needed — including aircraft and hand crews, many composed of college students still in school — aren't often available to the northern plains during the winter months.
Increasingly, winter's natural buffers, such as snow, aren't as prevalent in recent years, including 2021, says South Dakota State Fire Meteorologist Darren Clabo.
"The only place we have snowpack right now is Terry Peak through Deerfield," said Clabo, who is also a professor at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. "We're very low (in moisture), which is unusual."
Nearly 80% of South Dakota is under "moderate drought," according to a federal monitor. Fire data — save for newspaper clippings or yarns from old-timers — only goes back to the early 1990s, says Clabo.
But he says it's noteworthy that the Jan. 14 Lemmon fire, as well as the 2017 fire at Legion Lake in Custer State Park, the third-largest Black Hills fire on record which burned 54,000 acres and started on Dec. 12, have both happened in the middle of winter.
"That was an anomaly," Clabo said. "Those type of fires are not in the historical data."
Clabo also cautioned the increased impact of humans in the Hills also can be reflected in fire events. The Schroeder Fire's cause is listed as "human."
On Wednesday in the Black Hills, some residents were permitted to return to homes in neighborhoods west of town. Firefighters comprising volunteer fire departments hours from the Hills have responded, as have personnel from Ellsworth Air Force Base, and a South Dakota National Guard Black Hawk helicopter that has dropped retardant on the blaze. The fight is now under the direction of a national team based in Colorado.
But there's no easy fix to pushing resources to the Dakotas in what firefighters call the "shoulders months" in future years.
"It's tough to pre-position crews and aircraft in the winter time because they're not available," said Jim Strain, a retired assistant chief of operations for South Dakota Wildland Fire.
The better solution might be waiting for rain or snow.
"We are in a drought," Strain said.
At one point earlier this week, a half-a-dozen separate fires burned across western South Dakota. Experts warn the season may stretch longer, too, further leaning on thin resources and an able, if far-flung network of volunteers in towns to the east and north.
South Dakota Wildland Fire Director Jay Esperance kept his words brief in Tuesday's press conference.
"The big picture thing," said Esperance. "Our main priority is no new fires. We don't have the resources to staff another large fire."