County drought levels not fairly recorded

HOT SPRINGS – At Fall River County Commissioners Tuesday, Sept. 5 meeting, county Emergency Manager Frank Maynard told about a recent visit he had to all four of the county’s drought monitoring stations: Edgemont, Oelrichs, Oral and Hot Springs.

Maynard said the county needed more monitoring stations in order to get a more accurate assessment of the county’s true drought status, because these four stations didn’t accurately reflect the entire county’s drought situation.

“This is an issue that needs to be addressed,” Maynard said. “We need people to do more reporting (as official weather stations) on the west and south sides of the county.”

Maynard explained that the county’s four current weather stations are the basis for information sent to the National Weather Service (NWS). NWS uses this information to prepare reports for the state and federal governments on the status of drought and other weather phenomenon across the state.

Recently, Maynard said, when hay was being brought in and auctioned for drought-impacted areas across western South Dakota, North Dakota and Montana, the county was on the brink of being included in the drought-impacted area – until a couple of showers in the reporting stations upped rainfall totals and bumped the county out of contention. Had there been more reporting stations, especially in the western and southern portions of the county, this might not have occurred.

Commissioner Joe Falkenburg agreed, and said drought in the southern end of the county was impacting stock dams and other water resources.

Falkenburg noted that at many stock dams on the western side of the county, the dams were either dried up or had “rotten water,” that killed cattle by the score.

“It’s more critical than you could imagine,” he said. “There are dead cattle out there piling up like ant hills”

He also talked about ranchers hauling water to cattle, and how this was taking four hours per trip of their time, and costing them “real money” to keep their cattle alive.

Commissioner Joe Allen said the county needs help “from the top” – state and federal help – to get water for cattle.

Maynard noted that during the recent Sheps Canyon fire – last Monday, Sept. 4, fire burned more than 13 acres in the canyon – took off through the trees on the one side of the canyon like the trees had not had any moisture in a decade.

Great Plains Fire Information says the Sheps Canyon fire was sparked by an abandoned campfire. However, eyewitnesses say the fire was the result of an RV leaving Angostura Recreation Area’s west side catching on fire, and stopping alongside the road so the passengers could exit.

Maynard, who was on the scene, stuck with the RV description, and said the fire burned 50 feet on one side of the road, but lit up the other side fast, torching the 13 acres.

Maynard requested that the single engine air tanker (SEAT) planes be returned to Hot Springs, so fires could be fought more rapidly. During the Sheps Canyon fire, he said, a SEAT plane from Valentine, Neb. was called in and it took two hours to reach the fire. The plane dropped its first load of fire retardant then had to fly to Rapid City to acquire a second load, with a 20 minute delay between drops.

“This could have been a 13,000 acre fire, with structures close by,” he said

Both Maynard and Falkenburg noted that the southern end of the county was much, much dryer than other areas in the county.

Commissioner Paul Nabholz said he was confused by the varying fire danger signs. Recently, one sign, by the courthouse, says the Black Hills Fire District is high fire danger, while another sign, out on the prairie, indicated that the danger was moderate. Nabholz didn’t understand how there could be two levels of fire danger close together.

Maynard said the levels depend on the area; some spots have received rainfall, others have not. Areas north of the Cheyenne River, for example, are currently listed as high fire danger. Areas south of the Cheyenne River are considered extreme fire danger under current conditions.

Falkenburg pointed to the drought monitor indicating the same situation.

“This is a serious thing,” Falkenburg said.

With hunting seasons approaching, Maynard reiterated the message shared with him by NWS fire weather forecasters, noting that September looks to be dryer and warmer than normal, with little or no chance of rainfall – the potential for fires is very high.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor website (, precipitation remains below normal for much of the region which prompts an expansion of drought into southwestern South Dakota and western Wyoming. Drought also expanded throughout Montana, where 41 percent of Montana pasture and range conditions are rated “very poor,” and 73 percent of the topsoil moisture conditions are rated “very short.” Eastern South Dakota received a couple of inches of rain during the last two weeks, bumping its crop conditions to “very good.”

Commissioner Deb Russell hoped that the county might work with the state’s Department of Tourism to get word out that fire dangers are high and to warn people not familiar with grasslands and drought to be extra careful.

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In related business, Falkenburg proposed a water project for the southern end of the county, by sharing a map with fellow commissioners of a potential water line, calling it a “big idea.”

The source of this water could be a tie in to the Fall River Water Users District, Edgemont water, or perhaps drilling a well, Falkenburg said.

“I don’t know if we can do this, but at least we’ll start something,” he said.

Support from fellow commissioners was unanimous. Commissioner Joe Allen and Russell pitched a resolution to support the project.

Recent fires

Monday, Sept. 4

• Sheps Canyon, reported at 11:17 a.m., 13.3 acres, 100 percent controlled as of 1:15 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 5. Local, state and federal resources were on scene. Cause was officially listed as an “abandoned campfire,” but eyewitnesses say it was started by an RV that caught on fire pulling over then igniting grass and debris along the side of the road.

Sunday, Sept. 3

• Pasture 12 Fire, Oglala National Grasslands (in Nebraska) south of Ardmore. Lightning sparked a 2.1-acre blaze that was reported at 7:51 p.m. Federal and local resources responded. Contained and controlled at 9 p.m.

• 959 Fire - Oglala National Grasslands (in Nebraska), south of Ardmore. Lightning sparked a 2.5-acre blaze that was reported at 5:40 p.m. Federal and local resources responded. The fire was contained and controlled at 9 p.m.

Wed., Aug. 30

• Elk Run Fire – Lightning sparked the Elk Run Fire, and burned 225 acres. The fire was reported at 3:16 p.m. on Aug.30, on both private and U.S. Forest Service Land in Custer county about two miles south and west of Argyle. Local, State and Federal firefighters were able to reach 100 percent containment on Saturday, Sept. 2. The hard work of firefighters resulted in zero structures lost. Elk Run Incident Command wants to offer profound thanks to the Box Elder Jobs Corps Culinary Arts and Camp Crew Programs and all of the cooperators and agencies that helped suppress the fire, including: Custer and Hot Springs Ambulance Services, and a special thank you to members of the Argyle Volunteer Fire Department (VFD) for providing facilities and support for Incident Command and the camp. Steve Esser said, “Make sure that everyone gets thanked as they did an outstanding job!”

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