They’ve lived in the Black Hills for less than a year, but Tom Frank and his wife already recognize the wildfire potential surrounding their home three miles northwest of Hill City.
“We’re petrified. We know it’s coming,” Frank said after attending a meeting organized by Pennington County officials to discuss the looming fire danger in the Black Hills National Forest, which is under attack by the mountain pine beetle.
The Franks recently attended a Firewise Workshop offered by the S.D. Department of Agriculture and Extension Service.
“Everybody in town should have been there,” Frank said. Unfortunately, few people took advantage of the training.
About 40 people attended Tuesday’s meeting. An equal number attended the same meeting in Keystone the night before, according to Capt. Corey Brubakken of the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office.
Brubakken said people are starting to take the threat of a catastrophic wildfire seriously.
“I think they understand the potential of what it could be,” Brubakken said.
The message delivered Tuesday night was blunt and firm: Do what you can now to protect your home, and have an evacuation plan for your family and animals.
“I think we’ve forgotten about urban interface,” county fire coordinator Denny Gorton said.
Property owners should be trimming and thinning trees around their homes. Check to make sure gutters are cleaned. Evaluate the fire resistance of the roof and if possible, consider more fire-resistant roofing material.
Brubakken outlined the evacuation procedures his department will follow. Attempts will be made to contact homeowners. Deputies and other law enforcement personnel making those calls are risking their lives to warn others and should be taken seriously, he said.
There won’t, however, be time to notify everyone.
“Don’t bank on the fact that you will have the luxury of having someone give you a warning,” Brubakken said.
“Maintain your composure,” Brubakken said. In a crisis, smooth is fast, he emphasized.
Hill City Fire Chief Craig Comer said subdivision residents need to be aware of their escape routes.
“The hard reality is we have a lot of groupings of homes with little ingress or egress,” Comer said. “It’s difficult, if not impossible, to get in and out of some with structure protection equipment.”
A weather radio can be a valuable tool to spread the word about a looming crisis, Pennington County Emergency Manager Dustin Willett said.
Willett also recommended programming cell phones to receive emergency alert messages.
“There is a potential for a catastrophic wildfire,” Willett said. “Have a plan, and practice that plan.”
Everyone associated with emergency services recognizes the seriousness of forest conditions and is concerned about safety and protecting homes and property, but it is a shared responsibility, said Pennington County Commissioner Nancy Trautman.
“You have to care the most about for yourself and take responsibility for your family and your home,” Trautman said.