When the prescribed burn was lit Monday morning at Wind Cave National Park, the people doing the lighting were following a "prescription."
That prescription, which is a checklist of conditions that must exist to safely and effectively conduct a controlled burn, indicated all was OK to go ahead.
And so the fire was lit, even though the region is in one of the driest and busiest wildfire seasons in recent years, and even with a fire-weather watch in effect for the next day.
“Obviously now, we wish we hadn’t,” said Tom Farrell, chief of interpretation at the park and spokesman for the fire response effort on Tuesday. “But at the time, we were in prescription.”
By Tuesday afternoon, the planned 1,000-acre burn had scorched the proposed area and an additional 4,500 acres, for a total of nearly nine square miles. The wind blew a smoky haze 40 miles northeast into Rapid City that could be smelled throughout the day. But the fire was still within the boundaries of the 33,851-acre park and its rugged, mixed prairie-and-forest terrain. No structures were lost and no injuries were reported.
On Tuesday morning, bison grazed peacefully in unaffected parts of the park and prairie dogs chirped from their holes as helicopters roared overhead, hauling water to the firefight from nearby Cold Brook Reservoir. Single-engine air tanker planes were also in use.
A crew of more than 100 firefighters from local, state and federal fire-response units had established a line around 80 percent of the fire by Tuesday morning, with a goal to get the line all the way around the fire and begin working to contain it. Three nearby ranches and two park structures were considered threatened but had not been damaged, and nobody had been evacuated.
The park remained open, but visitors were advised to stay on established roads, and the park’s back country and hiking trails were closed. Park roads 5 and 6, the Red Valley and Highland Creek roads, also were closed to accommodate firefighter traffic.
At the 7-11 Ranch, just southeast of the fire, the Perry family looked on nervously Tuesday.
“The question is, why did they light it off?” Lisa Perry asked. Smoke had been so thick around her ranch Monday night that visibility was near zero.
The prescribed burn began Monday morning after an 8:48 a.m. test burn. The park’s superintendent, Vidal Davila, who was not made available for an interview Tuesday, then made the decision to continue with the full burn. It was located in the southwest corner of the park, where a burn was scheduled in October but was called off due to unfavorable conditions.
Farrell said the area had apparently never been burned since the park’s founding in 1903, and park officials hoped the burn would clear out built-up dry vegetation to prevent it from becoming fuel for a catastrophic wildfire. They wanted to conduct the burn before conditions grew too wet this spring to do it effectively.
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Hours prior to the test burn Monday, the National Weather Service had issued a fire-weather watch for the following day, Tuesday. But at the time of the test burn Monday morning, the forecast for the rest of Monday was good: a high temperature in the 50s, with 6 mph winds. The burn was scheduled to be finished by Monday evening, with mop-up operations slated for Tuesday.
But wind speeds on Monday exceeded the forecast, according to National Weather Service data. By noon, gusts were reaching 16 mph, on the way to 26 mph by 3 p.m.
At 12:15 p.m., with the controlled burn in progress, what Farrell described as a dust devil or fire whirl blew some embers across the fire line at U.S. Highway 385 and quickly ignited an eastward-bound grass fire outside the boundaries of the prescribed burn.
“There’s always an element of risk anytime you put fire on the ground, and we do everything we can to minimize risk, but we can’t control the weather or the wind,” Farrell said Tuesday.
At 1:30 p.m. Monday, the fire’s status was officially changed from a prescribed burn to a wildfire.
Then, at 2:20 p.m. Monday, the National Weather Service upgraded its fire-weather watch for Tuesday to a red-flag warning, which meant critical fire-weather conditions were imminent.
That was the situation facing firefighters Tuesday. The wind direction changed and pushed the fire toward the northeast, deeper into the park instead of onto private land. Wind speeds reached 30 mph by Tuesday afternoon.
The National Weather Service forecast for the park this week includes cooler temperatures today and a chance of rain this afternoon and evening.
If the fire stays within the park boundaries, it’s expected that many trees will be lost but healthy grass will grow back within a couple of months.
Neighboring ranchers like Lisa Perry are hoping that’s the case.
“I hope we’re still standing here tomorrow,” she said Tuesday afternoon, “and there’s less smoke and all of our own grass is still intact.”