The Impact Of The White Draw Fire
Dakota Digest - 07/06/2012
By Kealey Bultena
As of Friday morning, the White Draw Fire is 95 percent contained. That’s according to crews managing the blaze near Edgemont. This week select crews packed up and left southwestern South Dakota to help at other wildfires. Yet this wildfire’s effect lingers even as crews inch closer to extinguishing the flames.
Perusing South Dakota’s tourism website, people seeking to experience some down time on a ranch happen across Sunrise Guest Ranch. The photos plastered online show rich wood amenities and a view of rolling hills dotted with trees. Now the snapshots from the rural Edgemont lodge are part of the past.
"A big black mark. I’m not sure there’s a lot of people that want to come see a burned out ranch," Mark Hollenbeck says. Hollenbeck owns Sunrise Ranch. On Saturday, the White Draw Fire overtook his land. “Pretty much all of the ranch burned with the exception of the land right around the house.”
Hollenbeck says he and his nephew started battling the fire at five a.m. They got some help at nine a.m. But by mid-afternoon, the rancher says the wind picked up. A fire that scorched at most 40 acres of Hollenbeck land, within 45 minutes, swallowed up another 1000 acres.
“They plowed a ridge around the house. In the outbuildings, we had two or three fire trucks there. And the fire was racing at us, and I wasn't sure we were going to stop it, and it was about 300 yards from the house. The rain rolled in and put it out."
Two tenths of an inch of rain saved Hollenbeck’s home. Small bouts of fire crept back onto the prairie, but a strong fire line held most of the blaze back from his lodge.
White Draw Fire incident commander Bob Fry says that’s exactly how the fire line is supposed to work.
"The burnout is a a controlled process that is evaluated all the way through with a burn plan established and approval by myself as incident commander," Fry says. "And I was out there right at the beginning, and I wanted to make sure that we were doing the things we needed to do in an organized, safe fashion."
Before crews even created the fire line, Fry says they tried to herd the fire away from important structures like homes or areas of land with cultural significance. They prepped the line by bulldozing segments of earth to help prevent the fire from spreading farther.
"It's a really tough fuel type, especially in the conditions with those deep canyons that wrap around like that," Fry says. "You have to work from the areas that are safe, and it makes it difficult."
Fry says he’s been a fire chief for 25 years, with another decade and a half in fire rescue. He knows firsthand how he wants crews to attack the wildfire. He even traveled through blackened canyons to inspect the fire’s path.
"Some of the actual fire was all the way up almost to the hay ranch. I was standing at the hay ranch when the main fire was right below us. We just had enough time to burn out around their place before it hit there," Fry says.
Fry finds pride in the work fire crews accomplish, including steps he says help minimize damage. Fry admits area ranchers are the biggest losers in the White Draw Fire.
On the flip side, if there are winners, they’re people in Edgemont. The town stayed safe from the looming flames and smoke, and hundreds of firefighters coming through offer a boost for business. Cindy Turner is part of the Edgemont Chamber of Commerce and area economic development.
"They’ll be some boom to it. We had 400 almost 500 extra people in this town. That doubles the size of our town – and they were using resources here," Turner says. "Gas sales and diesel sales and convenience stoers and grocery stores all benefitted dollar wise from this, I’m sure."
Turner says recovery efforts have to focus on the ranchers, and she says those businesses that felt the boom were quick to offer help even though they were safe.
"You know, you have to understand small town South Dakota. Everyone banded together, and people are doing pretty well," Turner says. "Our businesses, a lot of them donated food items and water and power bars and anything our firefighters needed. They called on their distributors to make emergency deliveries down here, and of course, we’re quite a ways away from anybody, and they did it."
Back at Sunrise Ranch on the outskirts of Edgemont, owner Mark Hollenbeck doesn’t reap the benefits of the wildfire that decimated his guest grounds and his ranching business. The fire burned the winter range of grass for Hollenbeck’s livestock.
“I lost basically 25 percent of the ranch, so I’ve lost three months worth of grazing. And so I need to reduce my numbers by at least 25 percent, and, because of the drought, probably closer to 25 to 40 percent.”
Hollenbeck says calls it a “significant downsizing” of the sheep and cattle he raises. If that’s not enough, he’s coping with the reality that most people don’t think of charred prairie when they want a remote, relaxing get-away.
"The grass was worth about $10,000. But the aesthetics that I lost... that's gonna be... that's a lot harder to put a dollar figure on," Hollenbeck says.
The firefight is ongoing; crews clash with what remains of the White Draw Fire. The flames no longer lick at Hollenbeck’s land, but they have a lasting impact on his livelihood.
Incident Commander Bob Fry makes a special point to thank members of the southwestern community and the state for their support. He says fire crews rarely get to express that gratitude, and he’s happy to help anytime.
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