Hand crews walk up a hill in the Hansen-Larsen Memorial Park Trail Network to fight the Mallow Fire on March 9, 2012. The fire burned 147 acres of wilderness on Cowboy Hill.

Even though temperatures hovered around 60 degrees on Saturday and Sunday in downtown Rapid City, they likely did not bring a warm smile to firefighters.

The reminders of last year’s fierce fire season remain seared in their minds, especially after a winter where precipitation has been fleeting at best, according to Lt. Tim Weaver of the Rapid City Fire Department.

"Grass is the primary carrier of fire and the grass is ready to burn. It has been all winter long," he said. "We're in a pretty good drought. Conditions right now this spring so far are just as bad as they were at the end of last summer."

Last summer was one of the busiest ever for firefighters. It ignited on March 9 with the 147-acre Mallow Fire, which burned hot and fast just blocks from downtown Rapid City and threatened a number of homes.

Before the summer was over, 1,113 fires burned more than 103,000 acres in South Dakota, which was nearly twice as much as in 2011 when 631 fires burned 65,000 acres, according to the South Dakota Department of Agriculture.

Weaver is predicting this summer could be worse than last year.

It is a sentiment shared by Dave Barber, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service, who said that although precipitation totals are about average this winter, it has been a long, dry spell for western South Dakota.

“If we don’t see precipitation as we begin to warm up and get more sunshine, we are going to get a lot of dry grass conditions and that can be dangerous,” he said Sunday. “I just hope we pick up more snow and spring rain.”

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Barber said that Rapid City has received .68 inches of precipitation since Jan. 1, which is just below the average of .82 inches. He also pointed out that the area’s best months for precipitation are ahead.

“This time of year is a pretty dry time, but as we move into March and April we tend to have more snow,” Barber said. “The wettest time of the year is April, May and June.”

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As a result of the current dry conditions, Pennington and Butte counties have burn bans in place and firefighters want property owners to get ready now for fire season.

Weaver said homeowners need to clean up pine needles and any dry debris and create defensible space around their homes. To help with the preparation, the Rapid City Fire Department offers programs to help property owners in the wildland-urban interface — those areas where homes and buildings mix with the forest — fire-proof their homes.

Entire neighborhoods or groups of homeowners can sign up for the Fire Department's brush-chipping program.

"That program is available at little or no cost to a neighborhood and typically neighborhoods sign up together," Weaver said.

Homeowners also can use city and state money for other programs. The state’s Wildland Fire Division offers a 50 percent cost-share to remove trees or fuels, and the Rapid City Fire Department will cover half of those costs.

"Homeowners really have a say on how the fire is going to affect their personal property and home," Weaver said.

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Contact Aaron Orlowski at 484-7069 or aaron.orlowski@rapidcityjournal.com

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