Monday, March 1, 2021

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Windy fire still burning, 26 departments worked to contain

 A major grass fire burned 19,400 acres, a swath of land that is more than twenty miles long and four miles wide, in Adams County, North Dakota, right across the Stateline from Lemmon, SD, on Thursday, January 14.

The first call came in to the Lemmon Fire Department at 4:33 p.m. The department responded to a report of a major grass fire northwest of Lemmon. As of Monday, January 19, the fire was 100% contained though not yet extinguished.

High wind speeds in excess of 50 mph combined with extreme dryness from a lack of snowfall created conditions that warranted an immediate mutual aid request from fire departments in surrounding communities in both states. Flames as high as 30 feet provided an orange glow that could be seen for miles.

“This fire was contained as a result of countless individuals providing resources ranging from fire personnel and apparatus from area departments, the Perkins County and Adams County Sherriff’s Offices, and many other agencies and individuals. To have a fire of this speed and extent and not to lose an occupied structure is nothing short of a miracle,” stated Chad Baumgarten, Chief and Incident Commander, Lemmon Fire Department.

Twenty-six fire departments from three states, at least fourteen agencies, and an unknown number of personnel answered the mutual aid request. Responding fire departments included Lemmon, Bison, McIntosh, Grand River, Morristown, Lodgepole, Meadow, McLaughlin, Isabel, Glad Valley, Mobridge, Faith, Prairie City, Ludlow, Buffalo, Camp Crook, Hettinger, Bowman, Flasher, Carson, Elgin, New Leipzig, Mott, Regent, Reeder, and Scranton.

The Lemmon Fire Department also received assistance inquiries from Platte, Enning, Murdo, New England, South Heart, and Wibaux (MT). 

Responding agencies included Perkins County Sherriff’s Office, Adams County Sherriff’s Office, Ziebach County Sherriff’s Office, South Dakota Highway Patrol, Lemmon Ambulance, South Dakota Game Fish and Parks, South Dakota Department of Transportation, Standing Rock Bureau of Indian Affairs, Perkins County Highway Department, U.S. Forest Service – Grand River District, North Dakota Forestry Department, North Dakota Fire Marshal’s Office.

Local folks helped too. Farmers and ranchers brought sprayers, water tanks, and whatever they had that could help. The elevator provided water and Ready Mix in Lemmon transported it to the firefighters.

Fire Marshal Shane Penfield of the Lemmon Fire Department reported that “two firefighters were injured and treated at the West River Regional Medical Center; both were discharged, one with significant injuries.” Miraculously, there were no fatalities.

The fire swept through approximately 19 ranches, destroyed multiple out-buildings and a ranch headquarters building. Notably, all occupied residences were saved. Livestock loss was reported as “minimal.” Fence damage and loss of stacked hay were also reported.

The loss of animal feed was significant. The West River Vet Clinic, (701) 567-4333, is organizing hay distribution, fencing, and volunteer labor to help those affected.

Folks are reminded that there is the possibility of seeing smoke for several days as animal manure, shelterbelts, and rubbish continues to burn inside of the fire-perimeter. Those hotspots “generally do not pose a threat and continue to be monitored,” according to the Lemmon Fire Department. Flare-ups will be addressed by the department as they occur.

The Lemmon Chamber of Commerce, (605) 374-5716, is helping to coordinate community donations of food, money, and assistance to those directly affected by the fire.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation by the Adams County Sheriff’s Office and North Dakota Fire Marshal’s Office.

“We don’t know how it started but it was fueled from sustained winds, 30-40 miles per hour, with gusts up to 56 miles per hour. The winds were so fierce that there is actually a lot of bare soil here because the wind was scouring the carbon that is normally left behind in a prairie fire,” said Penfield in an interview. He continued, “It has also been very dry here. We haven’t had any snow since last October except for some flurries the last couple of days. We need moisture. A foot of snow would be okay right now.”

Lemmon was also the site of a 14,000 square acre fire in 2013. That fire began as a prescribed burn and got out of control when the winds picked up.

There is a direct link between climate change and conditions that precipitated the spread of the Windy Fire. Record warm temperatures are a direct result of man-made greenhouse gasses that are trapped in the atmosphere. The amount of carbon, sulfur dioxide, and methane in our atmosphere is beyond the Earth’s capacity to “recycle” the elements.

Consider the fact that a single carbon element holds 3,000 times the amount of heat that a single water molecule can hold. This increased heat in our atmosphere has serious effects on weather patterns, makes storms more powerful, winds stronger, and droughts drier. Locally, the warmer weather means that the risks of another large grass fires driven by high winds will remain high.

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