The owner of the land where investigators say the Schroeder Fire ignited in a slash pile is a former wildland firefighter who believes the blaze began with an arson.
“We have reason to believe the Schroeder Fire was caused intentionally, by an unrelated third party,” the owner wrote in a written statement cited in a 60-page investigate report.
“I am 100% sure the burn pile fire was completely out,” he said.
The Schroeder Fire broke out around 9:22 a.m. on March 29 at 8875 Schroeder Road, about four miles west of Rapid City, according to the report by a private fire investigator.
All evidence points to the fire being caused by a large permitted slash pile lit March 16 on the property that wasn’t completely put out once the snow melted and the fire began on an incredibly windy day, according to investigator Todd Hedglin.
The homeowner said he’s experienced two suspicious fires since he bought the property in 2018 but before he moved into the home in late 2019 or early 2020.
Grass outside the east side of the home was burned in 2018, the man said. The next year, someone entered the still-vacant home, placed a stump inside and tried to burn it.
The man said he reported the second incident but both remain unsolved. He provided investigators working on the Schroeder Fire with a brief history of what he called a “suspicious items timeline” and an “intentional acts timeline.”
The 48-acre property where the fire began has been owned by the SR Living Trust since 2018, according to the Pennington County Equalization Office. The actual owner’s name is not mentioned in the investigative report.
The owner says he’s spent 20 years in emergency services, including working in search and rescue, law enforcement and firefighting.
I’ve fought “numerous wildland fires” and “I understand how to ensure that things don’t continue to burn and smolder,” he wrote in a statement.
The Schroeder Fire burned 2,224 acres west of Rapid City, destroyed a home, damaged at least seven other structures, forced up to 500 people to evacuate, and closed down road access for many others.
“Based on the information to date and in consultation with the Pennington County State's Attorney, no criminal charges are being filed at this time,” the Department of Public Safety said in a Tuesday news release.
Hedglin’s investigation involved conducting interviews, examining the area where the fire began and analyzing weather conditions.
He visited the site and conducted the interviews on March 31 with the property owner, a witness, two leaders with South Dakota Wildland Fire, a fire official with the Black Hills National Forest and two deputies with the Pennington County Sheriff's Office.
Hedglin wrote detailed explanations behind his finding that the slash pile was to blame and how he ruled out the fire being caused by lightning, glass reflection or refraction, or a cigarette or smoking.
His shortest section was on whether arson could be the cause, and he doesn’t mention investigating that possibility himself.
The property owner’s arson theory was shared with the sheriff's office, Hedglin said.
“After speaking with the law enforcement officials, it was determined any third-party involvement with the fire’s ignition could be eliminated as a cause of the fire,” he wrote.
He said the Rapid City Fire Department was the first agency on the scene but did not conduct any investigation, a task that was turned over to the sheriff’s office and Wildland Fire.
“Subsequent information related to any third-party incendiary or deliberately set fire would need to be addressed by the” sheriff’s office, Hedglin wrote.
Sheriff Kevin Thom was attending the South Dakota Sheriff’s Association meeting on Wednesday, according to the office’s spokesperson. He did not return a message from the Journal.
There were no reports or physical evidence of lightning strikes on March 31, Hedglin said. It’s rare for fires to be caused by refracted or reflected sunlight, and there were no materials in the area that could start such a fire.
The property residents and workers don’t smoke, there was no evidence of smoking material, and the conditions of the fuel and weather wouldn’t allow for a cigarette-caused fire, Hedglin added.
The landowner showed Hedglin a burn permit he obtained from Wildland Fire on Jan. 21. He said he called Pennington County dispatch on March 15 to say he would be burning a large pile that was up to 10 feet high and 60 feet long.
The man said the pile on top of a hill consisted of downed trees from the 1988 Westberry Trails Fire and other fuels added by previous owners.
One of the man’s employees then ignited the fire on March 16. The man said he, his wife and the employee monitored and photographed the fire for several days and used a tractor to turn over the pile to make sure the coals were mixed until the blaze was out on March 24.
“Although six or more inches of snow were present when the pile was ignited, the snow had melted away and exposed the fuel package,” Hedglin wrote. “Between the time the snow melted and fire ignition on March 29, the above-ground fuel bed had time to dry and allowed for a more competent fuel source."
The fire patterns and movement made it clear that the blaze began at the slash pile and was fueled by “topography and wind conditions,” Hedglin added.
He said there were steady winds as high as 58 mph and gusts up to 75 mph the morning of the fire, and the pile was surrounded by dry fuels.
Gov. Kristi Noem issued an executive order Tuesday preemptively banning federal government-mandated vaccine passports in South Dakota.
“Since the start of the COVID pandemic, we have provided the people of South Dakota with up-to-date science, facts, and data and then trusted them to exercise their personal responsibility to make the best decisions for themselves and their loved ones,” Noem said in a statement Wednesday. “We’ve resisted government mandates, and our state is stronger for it.”
Noem encouraged all South Dakotans to get a COVID-19 vaccine but said the state will not mandate it.
“We are not going to restrict South Dakotans’ exercise of their freedoms with un-American policies like vaccine passports. In our state, ‘Under God, the people rule.’ And that is how we will operate for as long as I am governor,” Noem said.
Vaccine passports have been the subject of international discussion as vaccination becomes more widespread and travel becomes a possibility again. Some versions of vaccine passports already exist internationally, usually in a digital format and operated by private entities, to certify that people entering certain venues or traveling to different areas have been vaccinated against COVID.
The governors of Florida, Texas, Montana, Idaho, Arizona and Utah have also issued executive orders against vaccine passport systems, citing government overreach and privacy violations. New York was the first state to come out with a passport system and Hawaii will be implementing one soon.
The Biden administration has said the federal government will not be creating its own version of such a system.
“The government is not now, nor will we be supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential. There will be no federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said at a recent press briefing.
Noem’s three-page-long executive order lays out each reason why vaccine passports are unconstitutional and will not be required in South Dakota. It says vaccine passports could be used to justify discriminatory treatment and cites a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that reports vaccination rates among minority and low-income populations will likely remain disproportionately lower.
“Any rationale for imposing public health restrictions that limit freedoms should be tailored to mitigate a verifiable, scientific risk, and … implementing a vaccine passport program could lead to unjustified, non-science-based restrictions on travel, speech, association, and other civil rights,” the executive order reads.
It continues on to say the role of government is not to completely eliminate risk because it is impossible to achieve but rather it is to guide the public by providing them with the facts and science to make their own decisions.
Nothing in the order limits nursing homes or long-term care facilities from requiring documentation of a resident’s vaccination status or applies to documentation requirements for the administration of a COVID vaccine.
The P.1 variant of COVID-19, also called the Brazil variant, has been detected in South Dakota, according to a statement by the State Department of Health on Wednesday.
The one case detected so far is in Pennington County, although the DOH said it is “safe to assume” other cases could also exist.
“We are closely monitoring this development and would like to use this opportunity to encourage state residents to get vaccinated as it’s the best way to be protected and has proven nearly 100% effective against hospitalization and death,” Daniel Bucheli, DOH spokesman, said in a statement. “With more access points than ever, it’s critical to protect yourself, your family and our communities.”
The variant was detected by an out-of-state commercial laboratory, according to the statement. P.1 has also been identified in Minnesota (five cases) and Nebraska (two cases). The variant was first detected in the country in January after being identified in travelers to Japan from Brazil.
COVID variants spread more easily and more quickly than the original coronavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The press release from the state DOH said there are concerns about the variant impacting the effectiveness of currently available vaccines and antibody therapy, but the CDC said studies have shown so far antibodies generated through vaccination are effective against variants.