Wabash Springs Fire threatened homes

Ron Burtz

With dry conditions and high and gusty northwest winds, last week’s Wabash Springs wildfire west of Custer was dangerous, but it could have been a whole lot worse according to local officials.
The fire in grass and timber in the Fjerdingren Place/Pinto Lane/Palamino Road area was reported at shortly after 7 o’clock Thursday morning and, whipped up by 40 mph winds, quickly grew to between 50 and 100 acres in size.
Almost as quickly, firefighters, engines and dozers were at the scene working to stop forward progress of the blaze. Because of heavy smoke being blown across Hwy. 16, the road was closed from the west side of Custer to Pleasant Valley Road for several hours and pre-evacuation notices were sent out to residents in the area. Not long after that, evacuations were carried out on residents directly in the path of the flames. Custer County Emergency Management set up an evacuation center in the gym of the Custer Armory.
Firefighters and resources began pouring in from a wide area and a staging area was set up in the parking lot of the former woodcarving museum. The fire suppression effort was managed by a unified command between South Dakota Wildland Fire and the Black Hills National Forest and by early afternoon was reported to be approximately 30 percent contained. The Custer County Sheriff’s Office was also able to reopen the road at that time but only local traffic was advised for the safety of firefighters and the public.
Evacuations were also lifted for residents along Fjerdingren Place and Big Pine Road, east of the fire perimeter.
By late afternoon firefighters were reported to have made great progress on battling the fire, by then estimated to be about 111 acres in size. At that time it was said to be about 50 percent contained. For residents along Hwy. 16, Palomino Place and Pinto Lane, evacuations were lifted at 6 p.m.  
Incident Commander Trainee John Haskivitz said, “Forward progress has been stopped and I expect to see more progress throughout tonight. Full containment is not expected until sometime tomorrow.”
Even as winds diminished overnight, crews remained on scene to mop up and secure the fire perimeter. By 10 a.m. Friday a combination of hand line, dozer line and hose completely surrounded the fire and it was declared 100 percent contained. Crews continued mop-up operations and monitoring throughout the weekend.
“It was a phenomenal response by the local fire departments, the state and federal firefighters all around,” said U.S. Forest Service public affairs officer Scott Jacobson. “We certainly couldn’t have gotten on the fire and got around it as quick as we did without the support from everybody.”
Jacobson said his hat was off to everyone who participated in battling the fire and noted it was one of the first unified command fires that has occurred in “quite some time where it was managed by both state and federal” agencies.
“Everybody just came together almost like it was clock work,” said Jacobson.
Jacobson said a major aid in suppressing the fire and making sure no homes or other structures were destroyed was work done in recent years by both the forest service and private landowners in the area.
Noting that no structures or even large trees were burned, Jacobson said “The fuels treatment and the thinning that’s been done in and around that area for the last 8-10 years certainly made a difference.”
Custer County Emergency Management Director Steve Esser echoed that sentiment.
While complimenting the quick and overwhelming response from agencies and fire departments around the area, Esser said “the people that lived in that neighborhood did a spectacular job too. The care that they took around their houses was a huge reason why we didn’t have any more impact and why we didn’t lose any houses. The people had the trees around their houses taken care of and the lawns were mowed down short.”
Esser said thinning and fuel suppression work done by the forest service in the area north of the fire scene was a big help as well, noting that if the fire had occurred five years ago the outcome may have been different. He said as it was, the trees were not close enough together to carry a crown fire which may have not been able to be stopped by the highway.
Esser said the high winds were a significant factor in fighting the fire, noting that firefighters were unable to use helicopters to drop water on the blaze as has been done with other recent fires. He said it would have been dangerous for the aircraft and the winds would have blown away the water anyway. He also said if the wind had shifted to the west blowing the flames toward Custer it would have been a completely different story.
Esser applauded the massive response from not only county, state and federal agencies but from fire departments in an area stretching from Edgemont to Fairburn and Black Hawk.
The cause of the fire is officially stated to be under investigation at this time but given the high winds and the fact that power outages over a wide area west of Custer coincided with the blaze, some have speculated it was caused by a downed power line.


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