Grid-by-grid, teams of law enforcement officers fanned out along Old Hill City Road Tuesday, methodically knocking on doors spreading the word of an approaching wildfire.
At a mobile command post near the juncture of U.S. Highways 16 and 16A, a radio squawked out constant updates from a Pennington County sheriff’s deputy stuck in a washout on a Forest Service road with fire approaching. Responding assurances that help was on the way in the form of a heavy air tanker loaded with fire retardant came from the Fire Command Post.
As the Mountain Pine Beetle’s devastation spreads across the Black Hills National Forest, there is a sense of the inevitable in the serious approach the agencies involved took to Tuesday’s evacuation notification exercise that focused on a looming wildfire.
“Our intention is not to cause panic or alarm,” chief sheriff’s deputy Brian Mueller said. “But, we want people to be aware that the situation in the forest is deteriorating because of the Mountain Pine Beetle. There’s the potential for a large-scale forest fire.”
Inside the Pennington County-Rapid City Emergency Services Communications Center, computers hummed while staff monitored the notification progress and handled emergencies.
Next door in the Pennington County Search and Rescue trailer, the county’s Global Information System supplied maps, aerial photos and addresses.
An electronic map of the 13,426 acre Black Elk Wilderness was displayed to help track the progress of the emergency exercise that involved about 30 people and eight agencies Tuesday morning.
Tuesday’s exercise wasn’t about speed, but practice, according to Sheriff Kevin Thom.
“It’s about being prepared and making people aware of the potential hazards and letting them know that we’re ready,” Thom said.
Joining the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office in the drill were people from the Rapid City Police Department, Pennington County Fire, Pennington County Search and Rescue, U.S. Forest Service, Mount Rushmore, Pennington County-Rapid City Emergency Services Communications Center and the Black Hills Chapter of the American Red Cross.
“We have a very unique relationship of agencies in this region that make these successful,” Thom said.
While operations were conducted along Old Hill City Road, the Red Cross participated in a drill with Pennington County Emergency Management to locate an emergency evacuation shelter in Rapid City, according to Dan Kuecker, the Red Cross regional emergency services director.
Emergency management also went through its routine for staging an emergency operations center where county officials would gather.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial practices its own evacuation plan and a local campground reviewed its evacuation procedures, Thom said.
“It’s important not only for people out in the field to practice these procedures, but those who give support,” Mueller said.
It also is an opportunity for practice command and control operations involving multiple agencies. In those first few hours of an emergency, things can seem a little chaotic and hectic with so many agencies involved until the initial details are sorted out, Mueller said.
Communication in the Black Hills is always a challenge, so the simulated emergency helped update everyone on the dead spots in the area where cellphones or radios can’t reach.
As the exercise progressed, Lt. David Berkley and Sgt. Jeff Twite of the South Dakota Highway Patrol made notes about details that could be overlooked during a crisis. There needs to be a plan for housing and feeding troopers called in from across the state to assist in a prolonged crisis, Berkley said.
Police Lt. James Johns stood by ready to call in more officers if necessary to assist with evacuations and traffic.
The cooperative relationship between law enforcement and emergency agencies operating in the Black Hills is critical in emergencies, real or simulated, Thom said.
“It’s that very unique relationship that makes these successful,” he said.
An occasional joke slipped through, but everyone involved concentrated keeping it real, right down to the deputy calling for help after getting stuck looking for a group of horseback riders.
“It’s important to keep people focused and on track to provide as much realism as possible,” Johns said.
Whether it’s a tornado, flood or wildfire, the same strategies and partnerships can be called upon to handle the emergency, Thom said.
For absent residents along Old Hill City Road, Tuesday’s drill went unnoticed, but 16 officers from the Rapid City Police Department, U.S. Forest and sheriff’s deputies stopped at 100 residences and businesses located on and off peaceful roads.
While Sgt. Matt Sargent of the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office knocked on doors, police officer Matt Almeida sprayed an almost invisible “X” on driveways.
In a real evacuation, an emergency notice would be left on the door knob of empty homes. On Tuesday, those notices complete with evacuation checklists were left only when a homeowner was contacted.
Sargent visited briefly with Jerry and Barbara Lee who have lived at the end of a narrow road for 40 years.
As he would in a real emergency, Sargent asked the couple where they would go in case of an evacuation and asked for a cellphone number that could go into a central data base.
The Lees have watched the hillside south of their home turn rust-colored as the Mountain Pine Beetle advanced. They have discussed an evacuation plan, but a fire has never forced them to flee, Jerry Lee said.
A fire got close once, and that’s when “you figure out what’s important,” Barbara Lee said.
Since that experience, the couple’s important papers are kept together and ready to go.
But, it is hard to realize that not everything can be saved, said Barbara Lee.
“I’m already resolved to not taking everything,” Barbara Lee said.
Down the road a few miles at Kemps Kamp, owner Bruce Briesemeister informed Sargent that his evacuation plan was to turn “right or left” out of the roadside campground.
“It’s a good thing fire doesn’t go downhill very fast,” he said, scanning the narrow canyon where he has lived for 15 years.
Fire would be a good thing because it would clear the heavy timber and improve grazing for elk, deer, mountain goats and sheep, Briesemeister said.
“My only concern is that it might happen in mid-tourist season,” he said. That would be an economic disaster for the region, he added.
Tuesday’s exercise went well, Thom said. People responded well to the officers they met, and all the agencies had time to work together.
The skills honed Tuesday will someday be needed for a major emergency – most likely a wildfire, Thom said.
“Based on the amount of dead forest that we’re going to be dealing with … it’s inevitable that we will.”
Contact Andrea Cook at 394-8423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.