Record heat and extended drought conditions fueled a huge spike in the number and severity of wildfires across South Dakota in the 2012 fire season, costing the state nearly five times what it spent to battle blazes last year.

The number of wildfires nearly doubled this year compared to 2011, putting a strain on the budgets of small departments, causing cancellations of holiday fireworks, imposing bans on open campfires and stressing the firefighters who fought the fires.

Fighting the fires also turned deadly in July, when a plane crash killed four National Guard members who were helping douse a fire southwest of Rapid City.

The state has spent about $4.5 million fighting wildfires so far in 2012, a 364 percent increase from 2011, when it spent only $970,000.

This year, firefighters fought 1,113 fires that burned more than 103,000 acres. That dwarfs the number of fires and acreage burned in 2011, when South Dakota saw only 631 fires that burned 65,000 acres, according to the South Dakota Department of Agriculture.

Jim Strain, chief fire management officer for South Dakota Wildland Fire, called the number of fires and acres burned "way above normal."

The increased expenditures mainly came from the use of more aircraft to fight the fires, Strain said. The land was so dry even small fires required aircraft to get containment.

"There is a strong correlation between the overall aviation cost and the fire cost," Strain said.

This summer saw the hottest July since 1936, with the average high at 92.5 degrees and five days reaching more than 100 degrees. Governments banned campfires at public and private campgrounds and outlawed fireworks over the July 4 holiday. Precipitation was scarce, with nearly 80 percent of the state in severe, extreme and exceptional drought earlier this month, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Some major blazes stood out. The Myrtle Fire near Pringle burned more than 10,000 acres, and the Longhorn Complex fires outside St. Francis burned about 44,000 acres. The White Draw Fire near Edgemont scorched more than 9,000 acres and turned fatal when four Air National Guardsmen based out of North Carolina died in a C-130 crash.

Fuel cost and wear and tear on vehicles hurt some volunteer fire departments, but the state reimburses most fires located in state jurisdiction. Departments on the prairie, such as those in Wall and New Underwood, may not see as much reimbursement from the state and would depend on insurance and private donations to cover the increased costs.

The New Underwood Volunteer Fire Department received 36 fire calls for all of last year. This year, it has answered more than 140 with two months of the year remaining.

"It did take a toll on all of our trucks," said Ronnie Racicky, New Underwood fire chief, whose department has a $36,000 budget. "We are holding our own with help from local folks."

The high call volume can strain volunteer firefighters with full-time jobs and families. 

"There are so many activities with kids, it is just that they don't have the time that they used to," said Joel Behlings, Custer Volunteer Fire Department chief.

Call volume in Custer is up 30 percent over last year, but Custer fights most battles on forest land and is reimbursed for the truck hours.

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The increased fire activity actually boosted morale for some firefighters who find satisfaction in preventing homes from burning and saving lives.

"If we are not doing anything, it is when the morale is down, but when they have runs and they can put their skills to work, it brings their morale up," Behlings said.

The increased activity also helped firefighters to remain certified, said Denny Gorton, Pennington County Fire Service manager. A crew needs to have worked a certain number of fires over a three-year period to keep up on qualifications. 

And with fire reports constantly in newspapers and on television, recruiting increased the firefighters' ranks.

"Something about it sparks interest, and they call," Gorton said.

Racicky said the workload is hard on the volunteers with jobs, but fighting fires is why they signed up.

"They accept that when they volunteer, and a lot of time, that is why we are short-handed," Racicky said. "Whomever is in town and can leave their work and come down and take a truck out, that is what it is all about."

Contact Ryan Lengerich at 394-8418 or ryan.lengerich@rapidcityjournal.com.

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