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David Ruhl, 38, of Rapid City, died while fighting a wildfire in California on Thursday. 

Courtesy photo

Firefighters from the Black Hills, and indeed from across the nation, are mourning the loss of one of their own after David "Dave" Ruhl of Rapid City was killed battling a wildfire in California on Thursday.

Ruhl, 38, was a firefighter with the Black Hill National Forest who died while scouting a fire site late Thursday. Ruhl leaves behind a wife and two children in Rapid City, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

“You can imagine, that it’s a great sense of loss. Whenever you have a fellow firefighter go down there’s always a sense of loss. When you know his family, when you know him as a person…” said Craig Bobzien, forest supervisor for the Black Hills National Forest, his voice trailing off. "He touched so many people in a positive way, people are obviously grieving over his loss. We are all grieving … words are just are hard to describe that sense of loss."

Ruhl was killed while on voluntary assignment to help fight the "Frog Fire" blaze in the Modoc National Forest near Alturas, Calif., one of many serious fires burning out of control in drought-stricken California.

Bobzien described Ruhl, who had worked for the Black Hills Forest Service since 2001, as the epitome of a professional firefighter.

“Let me put it this way, Dave was passionate about his profession as a firefighter; he was proud to be a firefighter with the Black Hills National Forest Service,” Bobzien said Saturday. “He just represented the profession and the Black Hills Forest Service to the highest standard."

Ruhl's permanent assignment was as an engine captain in the Mystic Ranger District of the Black Hills National Forest, a role in which he supervised a crew responsible for assessing and suppressing new wildfires, according to a news release.

Ruhl left for California on June 14 on a detail that was scheduled for 120 days, Bobzien said. The number of firefighters from the Black Hills battling California wildfires changes daily as people return home or are deployed to other areas, but about 10 other firefighters from the Black Hills are out there now, he said.

Contact was lost with Ruhl Thursday night. He was found dead and identified on Friday morning, according to a release from the Forest Service.

Officials said Saturday that Ruhl died while scouting the fire zone in a vehicle on a forest road. The fire suddenly grew and trapped him, said Forest Service spokesman Ken Sandusky of California. "He was trying to develop a plan of attack," Sandusky told the Associated Press.

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Ruhl was one of several firefighters who were exploring the area when a small fire suddenly expanded. An investigation into exactly what happened is underway, Sandusky said. By Saturday, the fire that killed Ruhl had burned about three square miles and was only 5 percent contained.

It was one of more than a dozen major blazes that ravaged several areas up and down the coast of California during the past week, many of which remained out of control on Saturday.

Bobzien said the Forest Service plans staffing according to local fire danger levels. The higher the fire danger in the Black Hills, the higher the staffing level required. When local fire danger is low and they have more than enough staff to meet area needs, the Black Hills Forest Service can send a certain number of trained firefighters to assist firefighting efforts in other parts of the country. Bobzien said the Forest Service has an established team of fire personnel that travels together and are trained to help lead the national incident teams.  

He said that interstate cooperation works both ways. If the Black Hills Forest Service doesn’t have sufficient resources in the area available to tackle a major forest fire, additional assistance would be requested from other Forest Services from across the country.

Ruhl, a Wisconsin native, had served in the U.S. Coast Guard and worked as a correctional officer for the state of South Dakota, the release said.

“Dave was a highly respected firefighter, a quiet leader," said Bobzien. "He was really passionate about his work, he was a great father, great husband, the kind of person you just respected as a human being.” Bobzien said Ruhl's family requested privacy on Saturday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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