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Drought and fires ravage Plains-area reservations

FORT YATES, N.D. ñ As temperatures climb and humidity drops, firefighters on the Plains reservations watch for fires and listen for that call to action.

The past few weeks have meant hard and long hours for firefighters who have battled thousands of acres of prairie wildfires. On the Standing Rock Reservation alone, more than 25,000 acres of grassland have burned; on the Cheyenne River Reservation, more than 6,000 acres were blackened by fire.

The Lund fire, as it was labeled, on Standing Rock covered 30 square miles.

As drought conditions worsen by the day in the region that is home to both reservations, the potential for fires rises accordingly. Corson County, home to the South Dakota portion of Standing Rock, received only 3.6 inches of moisture since the first of the year.

Wheat and pastureland that was already stressed has burned; and the end negative result on the economy will not be known for some time, but can only be estimated by officials.

The fires and drought conditions are centered on areas where economic stress is already a large factor.

Record-tying or breaking temperatures occurred in mid-July and continue. Official records show the temperatures reached 116 with humidity in the teens and low 20 percent range, which turns grasslands into fuel that cause fast-moving fires. The National Weather Service predicts the temperatures will remain high with low humidity ñ and the hottest month of the year, August, is coming.

The Pine Ridge Reservation, located south of the extreme drought area, has experienced 30 fires. Daigre Douville, fire specialist for the BIA, said they have been lucky. Two of the fires, which were located just east of the Prairie Wind Casino, total 1,100 acres; the other fires were small and were extinguished quickly.

Pine Ridge has issued a fire statement, but as of press time the tribal government has not issued a burning ban. NWS maps show that the regionís drought conditions have increased from ìdryî to ìexceptionalî in a matter of a few weeks. The worst drought conditions cover both Standing Rock and Cheyenne River.

Thunderstorms that mostly bring dry lightning are firefightersí enemies. On Cheyenne River, a recent thunderstorm brought some moisture and managed to extinguish one of the many fires.

No structures have been lost on Standing Rock, but on Cheyenne River two abandoned trailer homes were burned.

ìWe are watching the lightning to see what is going to happen,î said Marcus White Bull, fire management officer for the BIA on Standing Rock.

White Bull said that two large fires on Standing Rock started by lightning and with the help of more than 150 personnel from across the country the fires are now out. It was estimated that 130 separate fires started on Standing Rock.

On Cheyenne River 50 fires were reported by June 27, the day fireworks went on sale. By July 7 the number jumped to 68, said Anthony Kennedy, fuels management specialist. As of press time, the total number of fires reached 158 on the Cheyenne River Reservation.

Firefighters came from as far away as Kansas and Arkansas, and a Type 2 firefighting team took over management of the fires on Standing Rock. BIA fire management efforts would normally be extended to other reservations, but neither firefighters nor equipment were available to support each other.

Units from Fort Totten and Fort Berthold were called for help, and a couple of units were sent.

Only one injury to a firefighter has occurred, Kennedy said, the result of fatigue.

ìWe are using every resource at hand to catch fires before they get too big. It is still dry despite a thunderstorm we had and got some rain,î Kennedy said.

Kennedy said fuels are extremely dry. A tree branch or other type of potential fuel three inches in diameter would normally be called a 1,000-hour fuel and when spring fires move through would only become charred. Now, that same branch would take minutes to be turned into ash.

In South Dakota, all but 17 of the stateís 66 counties have been placed under burn bans. That means no open fires; equipment working in fields must have a water source available, and some localities have even banned the use of charcoal in barbecues.

In some parts of the drought area, what live grasses and plants that survived are being attacked by grasshoppers.

A major problem for Cheyenne River is communications. Volunteer fire departments, the BIA, the tribe and other law enforcement are not connected to the same radio network.

Kennedy said their units use the civil defense system, but with a trunk system in place communications would be more streamlined. The state has a trunk system that is supposed to be installed on Cheyenne River, but it is still under construction.

On Pine Ridge, the lack of water is a large problem. Douville said a state of emergency has been issued on Pine Ridge for water usage. An awareness statement has been circulated around the reservation.

As the drought area grows to the west and south, Pine Ridge and Rosebud will continue to increase in intensity. The weather service issues fire watch statements on a daily basis for the entire western portion of South Dakota and for south-central and southwestern North Dakota.

FORT YATES, N.D. ñ As temperatures climb and humidity drops, firefighters on the Plains reservations watch for fires and listen for that call to action.The past few weeks have meant hard and long hours for firefighters who have battled thousands of acres of prairie wildfires. On the Standing Rock Reservation alone, more than 25,000 acres of grassland have burned; on the Cheyenne River Reservation, more than 6,000 acres were blackened by fire.The Lund fire, as it was labeled, on Standing Rock covered 30 square miles.As drought conditions worsen by the day in the region that is home to both reservations, the potential for fires rises accordingly. Corson County, home to the South Dakota portion of Standing Rock, received only 3.6 inches of moisture since the first of the year.Wheat and pastureland that was already stressed has burned; and the end negative result on the economy will not be known for some time, but can only be estimated by officials.The fires and drought conditions are centered on areas where economic stress is already a large factor.Record-tying or breaking temperatures occurred in mid-July and continue. Official records show the temperatures reached 116 with humidity in the teens and low 20 percent range, which turns grasslands into fuel that cause fast-moving fires. The National Weather Service predicts the temperatures will remain high with low humidity ñ and the hottest month of the year, August, is coming.The Pine Ridge Reservation, located south of the extreme drought area, has experienced 30 fires. Daigre Douville, fire specialist for the BIA, said they have been lucky. Two of the fires, which were located just east of the Prairie Wind Casino, total 1,100 acres; the other fires were small and were extinguished quickly.Pine Ridge has issued a fire statement, but as of press time the tribal government has not issued a burning ban. NWS maps show that the regionís drought conditions have increased from ìdryî to ìexceptionalî in a matter of a few weeks. The worst drought conditions cover both Standing Rock and Cheyenne River.Thunderstorms that mostly bring dry lightning are firefightersí enemies. On Cheyenne River, a recent thunderstorm brought some moisture and managed to extinguish one of the many fires.No structures have been lost on Standing Rock, but on Cheyenne River two abandoned trailer homes were burned.ìWe are watching the lightning to see what is going to happen,î said Marcus White Bull, fire management officer for the BIA on Standing Rock.White Bull said that two large fires on Standing Rock started by lightning and with the help of more than 150 personnel from across the country the fires are now out. It was estimated that 130 separate fires started on Standing Rock.On Cheyenne River 50 fires were reported by June 27, the day fireworks went on sale. By July 7 the number jumped to 68, said Anthony Kennedy, fuels management specialist. As of press time, the total number of fires reached 158 on the Cheyenne River Reservation.Firefighters came from as far away as Kansas and Arkansas, and a Type 2 firefighting team took over management of the fires on Standing Rock. BIA fire management efforts would normally be extended to other reservations, but neither firefighters nor equipment were available to support each other.Units from Fort Totten and Fort Berthold were called for help, and a couple of units were sent.Only one injury to a firefighter has occurred, Kennedy said, the result of fatigue.ìWe are using every resource at hand to catch fires before they get too big. It is still dry despite a thunderstorm we had and got some rain,î Kennedy said.Kennedy said fuels are extremely dry. A tree branch or other type of potential fuel three inches in diameter would normally be called a 1,000-hour fuel and when spring fires move through would only become charred. Now, that same branch would take minutes to be turned into ash.In South Dakota, all but 17 of the stateís 66 counties have been placed under burn bans. That means no open fires; equipment working in fields must have a water source available, and some localities have even banned the use of charcoal in barbecues.In some parts of the drought area, what live grasses and plants that survived are being attacked by grasshoppers.A major problem for Cheyenne River is communications. Volunteer fire departments, the BIA, the tribe and other law enforcement are not connected to the same radio network.Kennedy said their units use the civil defense system, but with a trunk system in place communications would be more streamlined. The state has a trunk system that is supposed to be installed on Cheyenne River, but it is still under construction.On Pine Ridge, the lack of water is a large problem. Douville said a state of emergency has been issued on Pine Ridge for water usage. An awareness statement has been circulated around the reservation.As the drought area grows to the west and south, Pine Ridge and Rosebud will continue to increase in intensity. The weather service issues fire watch statements on a daily basis for the entire western portion of South Dakota and for south-central and southwestern North Dakota.