Fireworks could be prohibited from June 20 to July 2 following a resolution approved Tuesday by the Pennington County Commission.
Commissioners unanimously approved the resolution that would allow the prohibition when the state grassland fire danger index reaches “extreme” danger. The board could also prohibit fireworks between Dec. 28 and Jan. 1.
The resolution would be suspended if the fire danger index falls below “very high” in the county and would become effective if it reaches “extreme.” The resolution also only covers land outside of the Black Hills Forest Fire Protection District or land under federal or state jurisdiction.
County fire administrator Jerome Harvey said the resolution would cover an area that’s north of Interstate 90, east of Highway 79 and outside the Black Hills Forest protection boundary.
The commission heard from Harvey; Matt Bunkers, science and operations officer with the National Weather Service Rapid City office; KNBN News Center One meteorologist Brant Beckman; 911 dispatch director Kevin Karley; West River deputy fire marshal Damon Hartmann; state’s attorney Jay Alderman; and Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom.
Bunkers said the fire danger index is calculated using a formula that includes temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and curing data, which shows how green an area is using satellite imagery. High wind speed often has the greatest influence, he said.
Bunkers said most of the state is in drought conditions while the county is experiencing moderate drought. He said in the Rapid City area, the water year so far is between the driest year and the normal value. The water year starts Oct. 1.
He said the area is now experiencing a 4.65-inch deficit in precipitation.
“There’s no sign necessarily that the drought is going to get any better,” Bunkers said.
He said the three-month temperature outlook indicates the state will likely see about 50% above normal temperatures.
Bunkers also said the long-term drought outlook could indicate another 5- to 10-year dry period.
“Life is about bets, and if I were to bet on this, I would bet that the drought would persist,” he said.
Bunkers said grasses could cure earlier than average this year, which would result in higher grassland fire danger in early to mid-summer.
Karley said dispatchers are unable to request time off during the Independence Day season due to the high volume of calls. He said they get calls into the center from the Rapid City Police Department and Pennington County Sheriff’s Office business lines, along with 911 calls.
He said they typically get complaints about fireworks and people mistaking fireworks for gunshots.
Violation of the resolution could result in a Class 2 misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail, a $500 fine or both.
The board also approved the first reading of an ordinance that would restrict open burning within the county except for the Black Hills Forest Fire Protection District, any municipality and any land in the county federally or state owned.
An open fire is defined as “any outdoor fire that isn’t contained within a fully enclosed fire box structure from which the products of combustion are emitted directly to the open atmosphere without passing through a stack, duct or chimney.” According to the ordinance, it wouldn’t include charcoal grills, liquid fuel grills, outdoor fireplaces, branding iron burners, campfires or burn barrels.
However, each item is defined. Campfires, for example, are designated and contained in locations in permitted commercial campgrounds operated by private individuals or corporations to be used for campfires by campers.
People would be unable to set open fires when the National Weather Service declares the state Grassland Fire Danger Index to be “very high” or “extreme” in the county. It would be suspended when the index falls below “very high.”
Penalties could include a $500 fine or 30 days in jail or both, and violators could be subject to other criminal penalties and civil damages for injury, suppression and extinguishment costs associated with a fire.
During the meeting, the board also took action to repurpose the remaining earmarked funds for the South Rochford Road reconstruction project to the Sheridan Lake Road reconstruction project contingent upon a transfer of a State Infrastructure Bank (SIB) loan for $8,852,000 from the Sheridan Lake Road project to the South Rochford Road project.
The remaining earmarked funds from the federal funds is about $6.5 million. Highway superintendent Joe Miller said the funds are in danger of being rescinded, so this is a safe bet.
“The funding is still there, it’s just we’re minimizing our risk of losing $6.5 million,” he said.
Miller said the county may submit an SIB Loan for the South Rochford Road project for additional funding.
Placerville Camp and Retreat Center’s 100th anniversary celebration last year was thwarted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, Placerville and other camps in the Black Hills are preparing to reopen and welcome back campers. If all goes well, Placerville also hopes to host an anniversary open house on Labor Day weekend.
“We’re very excited to get up and going again. We missed our 100th anniversary last year. We were bummed we had to shut down,” camp director Kerry Steever said.
The United Church of Christ-affiliated camp and retreat center near Rapid City has cut back somewhat, operating five weeks of camp this year instead of nine.
In April, the Centers for Disease Control updated its guidelines for youth and summer camps to help camps develop safety strategies. Placerville Camp posted on its website, placervillecamp.net, that it’s implementing COVID-19 guidelines.
“Of course, you’re going to have some people upset by it, but that’s why we put it in on the website. They’re going to know what to expect … or not come to camp. We’ve got to keep everybody’s safety in mind,” Steever said.
Placerville is limiting each camp session to 30 people. The camp is upgrading the air circulation systems in its cabins to provide more fresh air. Every camper will receive hand sanitizer to carry with them and a mask. Masks will be mandated indoors, except for sleeping. Campers also will stay in “family groups” of about 10 people for activities and meals, he said.
“We’ll be doing as much outside as we can, and that includes meals, to try to keep things safer as well,” Steever said.
Rimrock Camp and Retreat Center
Camps in the Black Hills vary on how much, if any, information they’re posting on their websites and social media about COVID-19 precautions, and not all camps responded to Journal inquiries about their safety measures this summer.
Rimrock Camp and Retreat Center’s website, rimrock.camp, lists detailed COVID-19 protocols. Campers come from all over the state, and director Jason Wiedrich said precautions start before some campers even arrive at Rimrock.
“We provide transportation so if they’re on our bus, they have to wear a mask. I think it’s going to be an obstacle for people who don’t like that, but if have an outbreak at camp, we have to shut things down,” Wiedrich said. “Last year was hard on us and our campers. We want to do the best we can to ensure our campers have their week at camp.”
Rimrock is bringing in extra workers to sanitize camp facilities and to handle some clean-up chores that typically would be assigned to campers to teach them good stewardship of the camp, Wiedrich said.
Campers will stay in small groups for activities and stay outdoors as much as possible.
“When they’re forced to sit in closed quarters, they have to be in their cabin groups,” Wiedrich said. “We’re asking all campers, when we are indoors, to be wearing masks.”
If campers get sick, Rimrock will have quarantine areas set up where campers can be cared for until their parents can pick them up, he said.
Camp Judson near Keystone is trying to ensure this summer’s camps run as normally as possible, while still taking precautions. Campers’ temperatures will be taken when they first arrive at camp. Camp director Tracy Koskan said the camp was undergoing extra cleaning, as well.
Weeklong camps — two for families, three for kids and teens — plus day camps are scheduled this summer. Koskan said many camp activities, including some chapel services, are outdoors. Staff and campers will not be required to wear masks, and campers will be allowed to mingle freely instead of being limited to small groups. The camp attracts kids, families and counselors from all over South Dakota.
“We want the kids to hear about Jesus and we want them to have fellowship with each other,” he said. “If they’ve been in school, they’ve been around other kids.”
The camp is changing its rules for counselors, Koskan said. In previous years, counselors could serve at back-to-back camps. This year, counselors will be required to take a break before returning.
“If they’re at a camp, they’ve got to take a week off to monitor and see if they get sick or not,” Koskan said.
Parents must sign a liability form when they register themselves or their kids for camp.
“They understand there’s a possibility of contracting COVID-19. We’re going to do our best but you can’t guarantee they won’t come in contact with someone who has it,” Koskan said. “If parents are concerned, they don’t have to send their kids to camp. They know the risks involved.”
By late April, all the camps were already almost full, he said.
Boy Scout camp
Campers at the Black Hills Area Council’s Boy Scout camp Custer will see frequent reminders of ways to keep themselves safe. The council designed several posters with guidelines about preventing the spread of COVID-19, what campers should do if they feel sick, and reminders about when to wash their hands.
Stewart Smith, program director for Black Hills Area Council BSA, said the council is adhering to all the CDC requirements during the five weeklong summer camps at its Medicine Mountain Scout Ranch.
Campers can cook and participate in small-group activities outdoors, Smith said. Hand washing and hand sanitizing stations have been installed throughout the camp. All scouts will have their temperatures checked when they arrive at camp and every morning. The camp has set up an isolation area in case campers become ill.
“It’s better to be more restrictive than not. We’re going to put stuff in place and encourage people to follow it,” Smith said.
Because the state doesn’t have a mask mandate, the camp isn’t requiring masks, Smith said. However, the camp is providing one neck gator mask for every adult and camp. The Black Hills Area Council encouraged its staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19, and most have.
“We’re asking all camp participants to include a vaccine card (when they register) so if something happens and they need medical treatment, we’ll know if they’ve been vaccinated,” Smith said.
The camp attracts scouts from South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Minnesota, Colorado and Texas, Smith said. Many like to plan a trip to Mount Rushmore on their way to or from camp, and Smith encouraged travelers to take precautions.
“Be respectful of whatever rules are required at each location. The best thing is when you’re traveling to camp, eat at drive-thrus only, carry hand sanitizer and wear masks in bathrooms. We’re telling people to take the precautions they need to take,” Smith said. “We’re telling people if you have any symptoms, don’t come to camp. We’d rather you stay home and refund you than make everybody sick.”
Giraffic Park Day Camp
Each two-week session of Giraffic Park Day Camp lets kids explore the YMCA of Rapid City’s 54-acre wilderness park. The camp runs June 1 through Aug. 13 and provides care for kids who have completed kindergarten through fifth grade. Like other area camps, Giraffic Park will get kids outdoors as much as possible, in smaller groups. Camp counselors will conduct daily health screenings.
“We try to limit the number of kids per counselor. That way they can ensure that they won’t have exposure to a large number of people. … Kids stay in that group for the whole two weeks,” said Keiz Larson, chief operations officer of the YMCA. “When they can’t maintain six feet of social distancing, kids and counselors wear masks.”
“We were pretty blessed last summer. We had absolutely great feedback and families felt that our camp system was very safe. We were one of the pioneering camps in the whole nation that put in place protocols for COVID-19,” Larson said. “Kids are required to wear masks. The kids didn’t have any problem with those protocols. After a year of school, they’re used to masks. Everyone on the bus wears masks to get to Giraffic Park.”
Following the COVID-19 protocols instills positive habits, she said. By teaching kids to wash their hands often and use hand sanitizer as they move from one activity to another, kids are learning how to follow guidelines proven to reduce their exposure to COVID-19.
“We are a tight-knit, close family here at the Y, and I really feel like our staff does anything and everything to ensure safety for our community,” she said. “Our staff have taken the opportunity for immunizations very seriously, and we feel good about where we’re at.”
The city’s April building permit valuation shattered the records for the month’s total valuations at $55 million.
April 2012 held the record with $40.3 million. The city issued 559 building permits in April 2021, the second highest for the month. April 2014 has the highest number of permits issued with 750.
“We are continuing to see solid growth in the city, not just reflected in the valuation but also in the number of permits issued,” city communications coordinator Darrell Shoemaker said in an email to the Journal.
Seven permits in April had valuations of more than $1 million each, including a pair with a combined value of $32 million. The top two were for Monument Health for $19.35 million for the Cancer Care addition, and Security First Bank for $12.85 million for its Hope Court facility.
Shoemaker said valuation totals reflect the cost associated with the project, including materials, labor and fees.
In April 2020, the city issued 262 building permits with a valuation of $10.74 million.
Between January and April 2021, Rapid City has issued 1,436 building permits for a combined valuation of $129,867,846, setting another record.
January to April 2018 holds the highest total with $178,733,587.
Top permits for April 2021 included a $2,143,300 permit to Community Enhancement for the Dakota Market Square Phase 2 on East North Street; a footing and foundation permit valued at $2,120,629 to Sharaf 6 Properties for the South Dakota Multi-Agency facility on Mall Drive; a $1,295,000 permit for a car wash and demolition to Moyle Petroleum Company; a $1.2 million permit for a hail canopy to MK Land; and a $1,123,213 permit for a Dollar General on Haines Avenue.
Shoemaker said the city saw considerable growth last year in the do-it-yourself projects like replacing furnaces, air conditioners, putting on additions to homes or making renovations, which lead to an increase in permits and contributes to the valuation. He said it was likely from people working from home or using stimulus checks to make home improvements.
He said the city has surpassed $200 million in annual permit valuation in 2007 and 2011-2015. It passed $300 million from 2016 to 2019. In 2020, the city saw a year-end valuation of $275 million in valuation.
“But it isn’t just the valuation,” Shoemaker said. “Permit numbers are also a key factor.”
Between 200 and 2010, the annual number of permits issued by the city was about 3,100 a year. Between 2011 to 2020, it grew to 4,500 per year with four years passing 5,000. In 2020, a total of 5,598 permits were issued, the second-highest year on record in a year.
“We anticipate continued building and growth with the projected addition of the B-21 Raider, the influx of people moving to the area and the continued demand for housing,” Shoemaker said.
Jesus Vance returned to Rapid City in October 2019 after graduating from high school at an Army base in Germany and immediately began working so he could save money before joining the military.
Eighteen months later, Jesus was found shot dead inside a Rapid City motel room.
"I didn't think it could happen to him," Stephanie Vance said of her nephew.
"Jesus didn't come from struggle. He had plenty of people who loved him and took care of him," Stephanie said during a phone call from her home in North Carolina. "I thought that my kid who knew better, who was raised better, who has family there, who has people looking out for him, I thought he would be safe enough."
“He changed a lot and within a year my brother just fell in with the wrong group of people, going down the wrong path, thinking he was going to find a way out of it," said Gracie, Jesus' 15-year-old sister.
Jesus, 20, was found inside a room at the South Dakota Rose Inn on East Boulevard North on the afternoon of April 9. A group of people fled in two cars while a surviving victim was found near the scene with methamphetamine and firearm accessories, according to police and court records.
Four people have been charged with aiding and abetting first-degree murder for allegedly killing Jesus during a kidnapping. They are also charged with kidnapping and using a "cutting instrument" to assault the surviving victim, who is facing drug and ammunition charges. The gun used in the shooting has not been found, police say.
Stephanie said a coroner told her that Jesus was at the "wrong place at the wrong time," that he wasn't being targeted. Her family wants to learn exactly how Jesus ended up being shot but is afraid no one will tell the truth.
"There's so many different stories about what happened and who did it that I don't even know what to believe," Stephanie said of the "street rumors" she's been hearing.
"Who would want to kill him because he's such a happy kid, he loves everyone?" she asked. "I have no idea who these people are and even his friends commented saying 'I told him to stay away from them because we don't even know them,'" she said of the four suspects.
Jesus, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, spent his younger years in Takini on the reservation before he, Gracie and their younger brother moved around the country with Stephanie, who is in the Army. Stephanie and the children — sometimes joined by their mother — spent time on bases in New York, Texas and Virginia while taking trips to visit friends and family in Rapid City.
Jesus spent the most time in Wiesbaden, Germany.
“He was doing really good in school, he made so many friends, he played in football, he played wrestling, he had goals and he was working," Gracie said.
Jesus was friends with classmates from diverse social scenes, Stephanie said. He learned to speak conversational German, which he used to befriend locals with German and Turkish backgrounds.
"I want everyone to know that he had a big heart. He had love for everybody, no matter what," Gracie said. “He was the most respectful person I’ve ever known."
Stephanie said Jesus took the time to strike up conversations with homeless people, who he referred to as his relatives. He once asked if she could buy shoes for his friend, who during the winter was wearing a pair that was too big and had holes.
Jesus enjoyed skateboarding, camping with his friends, and taking school and family trips to Paris, London, Amsterdam, Prague and Italy.
He loved "seeing new things, things that he's read about in books," Stephanie said.
Jesus explored castles throughout Germany and got the chance to see the Notre-Dame Cathedral, Louvre Museum and Eiffel Tower in Paris. He visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, where he enjoyed visiting coffee shops and taking boat rides along the canals.
After graduation, Jesus moved to Rapid City in October 2019 and began working at a restaurant while living with his cousin, an Army veteran attending school.
Jesus' was going to work and spend time with friends and family in Rapid City before joining his friends from the Wiesbaden base in Georgia, where he would continue to save up money and begin college, Stephanie and Gracie said. He would then join the military after he decided between the Army and Marines.
The plan never panned out.
Change of plans
Jesus eventually quit his job, moved out of his cousin's place, started hanging out with a new group of people, and wasn't as communicative with his family and old group of friends, Stephanie said.
Those changes, plus the fact that Jesus lost weight and was seen on the streets, made friends and family call to say they were worried about him, that he might be using drugs.
Jesus visited his siblings and Stephanie near her new base in North Carolina in April 2020 before returning to Rapid City in May. Stephanie said she told him she was worried about him and he responded, "Just trust me. I'm smarter than that. I won't get stuck in Rapid City."
Stephanie said she did trust Jesus, just not the world around him.
Jesus ended up being arrested "literally the day he flew in" to Rapid City after a friend and others picked him up from the airport.
She said Jesus told her that there was a syringe at his feet in the car, but it wasn't his. Jesus told the same thing to an officer who wrote that while he didn't know Jesus, he recognized everyone else in the parked car and knew they all had a history of drug use, court records show. The officer charged Jesus with meth possession and ingestion after a preliminary urine test was positive for the drug.
Stephanie said Jesus later told her that he wanted to leave Rapid City but had to take care of his legal case. She visited him in September and he looked healthy and was working in construction.
However, Jesus was later issued an arrest warrant after missing a court date and stopped responding to messages that Stephanie could see that he read.
Gracie and Jeremey, Jr., her 13-year-old brother, hoped to see their big brother when they were in Rapid City over spring break.
Jeremey said he messaged Jesus just hours before he was shot on Friday, April 9. He could see his brother read the message, but Jesus never responded.
"I told him that we leave Sunday, he read it, but that was the last thing I said to him," Jeremey said.
Gracie, talking on the speaker phone with Jeremy after school on Tuesday, paused to search for the last message she sent Jesus on April 8.
"I asked him if he was OK and he said, 'I’m fine, Gracious Lou, I like keeping myself busy but I love you,'" she read. "I said keep your head up brother, I love you" and asked where he was.
"He didn't get back to that part," Gracie said.