EDGEMONT | Neighbors exchanged greetings but few smiles while waiting on the porch at Sunrise Ranch for Sen. John Thune, who toured the White Draw Fire area before meeting with them Friday morning.
After a week of living with a wildfire in their backyards, neighbors traded inch counts from the desperately needed rain that fell the previous night. The 1- to 2-plus-inch drenching not only settled the smoke from the 8,900-acre fire but infused a ray of hope into the drought-stressed area.
The blackened pastures and hills east of Mark Hollenbeck’s Sunrise Ranch, however, tempered any relief the rain brought.
The fire consumed federal and private land, destroying pastures used for summer grazing.
Landowners and local volunteer firefighters are critical of the Forest Service’s management of the fire.
Thune spent almost an hour listening to their concerns before visiting the fire camp in Edgemont, where he spoke with federal and state fire officials.
“With the kind of conditions that we’re seeing this summer, the hot, dry weather, the drought conditions, I think that we can expect that we will be dealing with a fire season that is going to go on for a good many days and weeks,” Thune said. “We want to make sure that we learn lessons every time we deal with one of these. I think it’s instructive for me to hear from the people who are directly impacted.”
A motor-home fire along U.S. Highway 18 east of Edgemont started the fire June 29. A hot, dry wind helped spread the fire through the parched grass and timber along the highway and towards rocky canyons.
The fire is now 95 percent contained. Federal fire officials are in the process of downgrading the management of the fire and releasing firefighters brought in to help battle the week-long blaze.
The Edgemont Volunteer Fire Department was the first on the scene, fire chief Paul Nelson told Thune.
Nelson is frustrated with the Forest Service’s handling of the fire in its early stages and its poor communication with local firefighters.
Several local volunteers and landowners believe the fire could have been stopped in the early stages if federal officials would have consulted with them on everything from roads to equipment availability.
The firefight was mismanaged, Ben Reutter said.
“They wouldn’t ask the local guys where the roads were. That’s unacceptable,” Reutter said.
Reutter’s father, 68-year-old Edward Reutter, suffered a heart attack shortly after the fire headed for his property last Friday. He died the same night at a Hot Springs hospital.
“It was the stress,” his daughter-in-law, Becky Reutter, said.
The fire started on the edge of some rough country, volunteer firefighter and rancher Toy Litzel said. “But it could have been fought.”
Forest Service officials were unaware of roads that could have given them better access to the fire and wouldn’t take the advice of the area's residents, locals said.
“They didn’t listen to us,” Nelson said.
Nelson understands the Forest Service’s concern about safety but pointed out that the local firefighters are trained and know the terrain.
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“We’re not stupid. We know what we’re doing,” he said.
“They won’t talk to anyone,” Hollenbeck told Thune. “There’s an absolute disconnect from the local people.”
Hollenbeck lost three months worth of grazing when the fire ventured onto his land. He’s already listing cattle and sheep for sale.
Hollenbeck said the Forest Service was more concerned about protecting their land than private property. He also expressed frustration with the agency’s concern with protecting pictographs in Craven Canyon. He claimed slurry wasn’t used to deter the fire’s growth because it would damage the pictographs.
It seems the Forest Service places more value on archaeology than on “human life, human resources, our livelihoods,” Litzel said.
Fire lines were graded around old cabins in the canyons that were “liabilities to the owners,” Hollenbeck said.
Many of the landowners complained about the Forest Service’s strategies that included holding morning briefings around 7 a.m., before hitting the fire line.
“You can’t wait until it gets hot,” Donald Spencer said. The fire will force Spencer to reduce his cattle herd. He is planning to sell 140 yearlings that he would have kept until fall. He has also moved his cows to a neighbor’s pasture.
There was also an underlying regret among local residents that four lives were lost in the fire when a C-130 cargo plane from the North Carolina Air National Guard crashed July 1. Two members of the crew survived the crash.
The Forest Service’s lack of regard for the local community was evident when a memorial service for the fallen men was set for 6 a.m. July 5, without notifying local residents, Reutter said.
“A lot of people would have come,” he said.
After visiting with the Edgemont area residents, Thune conferred with fire officials and U.S. Air Force representatives.
Black Hills National Forest Supervisor Craig Bobzien assured Thune that his agency was “tied in with local firefighting resources very well.”
Bobzien said the local resources were used. Firefighters from larger departments were brought in so the local units could go home in case of new fires.
“I hope there wasn’t any sort of misunderstanding there,” Bobzien said. Bobzien assured Thune he would follow up on any concerns.
Later Friday, Hollenbeck scoffed at assurances given to Thune that a liaison officer had contacted all of the landowners during the fire.
“Nobody had talked to anyone,” he said. “You had to go out on the fire line and they would talk to you.”
After hearing two widely different views on the management of the White Draw Fire, Thune said he was reminded of the challenges involved when federal, state and local authorities must work together.
“It’s a big challenge,” Thune said. “We heard some of those challenges today. If anything comes out of this, we need — as best we can, given the circumstances — to communicate well. There’s a lot of know-how, a lot of experience common sense from the people who live out here. They know the land. They know the roads. They know the area and can contribute mightily to the success of these operations.”