This weekend marks the one year anniversary of Rapid City’s Mallow fire. The blaze started near a residential street and quickly consumed almost 150-acres of grass and trees on an area known as M Hill.
The fire kicked-off what became a very intense fire season. In 2012 more than 260-thousand acres burned in South Dakota according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
SDPB’s Charles Michael Ray toured some of the fire prone neighborhoods in Rapid City. On today’s Dakota Digest he reports that not all homeowners are prepared for wildfire.
Let’s take a quick look back at the Mallow Fire that popped up on a windy afternoon a year ago and quickly burned to the top of Rapid City’s M Hill.
“It was probably $170-thousand dollars to fight that fire it lasted for four and a half hours,” says Lieutenant Tim Weaver with the Rapid City Fire Department.
Weaver says the Mallow Fire occurred in a mountain bike park–relatively free of homes.
“Primarily a grass fire, no structures were involved, no structures were threatened, no severe loss of infrastructure, and obviously no one was hurt. Which is good,” says Weaver.
But Weaver says it could have been much worse. On a warm afternoon he’s standing on top of Carriage Hills Drive. It’s one of Rapid City’s higher end neighborhoods. Huge beautiful homes dot the steep slopes and pine covered vistas. Weaver says if last year's Mallow Fire had started in the canyon below this neighborhood–- it would have been a very different scenario.
“If you take that fire activity, which is basically a grass fire and put it on this hillside, with the values at risk here not only the lives of the residents but the firefighters lives. And, just the property value alone and that same fire on this hillside would have cost much, much more than $175-thousand dollars,” says Weaver.
Weaver points to something that is far more cost effective than paying for a wildfire in a high class neighborhood clogged with trees. That is thinning trees and reducing fuel loads. Judy Allen is among the residents who live here. She and her husband are keeping their property in line with what’s known as fire wise. It’s a set of guidelines for homeowners who want a better chance of surviving a wildfire. While Allen is working to make her home as ready as it can be—she’s had a hard time convincing all of her neighbors to do the same.
“And obviously we live in the trees because we love the trees, but there is a difference between being proactive and keeping your trees safe and being so overrun with trees that they all burn and we end up in a moonscape that’s not what any of us want,” says Allen.
Allen notes that thinning trees around a handful of these homes isn’t enough to save the whole neighborhood. She is lobbying her neighbors to reduce the kinds of trees and grasses that can fuel catastrophic fires. Allen fears a worst case scenario here—a fast moving wildfire that forces a mass evacuation.
“On our hill where you have to get down there is over 300 homes on one road that comes through here, and if you think that each one of those homes will probably try to pull two cars out of their driveway and you have 600 cars trying to go down the hill and you have one home that didn’t clear and so it’s flaming and it’s causing enough flames to cause the cars to stop we’re all going to be in a real predicament,” says Allen.
Fire managers say the scenario Allen lays out is not farfetched. They say in places like the Black Hills wildfires are not a matter of if–but rather when. Look no further to last year’s disaster in Colorado Springs, where the Waldo Canyon Fire consumed nearly 350 homes in terrain very similar to West Rapid City. This year Officials like Darren Clabo are worried about what could be another difficult fire season ahead.
“I think we’re going to stay in this drought stage throughout the spring and the summer here and probably exacerbate some of the fire conditions that we already have,” says Clabo.
Clabo is the State Fire Meteorologist for South Dakota. When a big wild land fire pops up he is the meteorologist on scene. Clabo says indicators point to above normal temperatures and normal precipitation this spring. He says it won’t likely be enough to break the drought.
“We’re so far behind as far as precipitation in the past 12 months that it’s really going to take a substantial period of above average precipitation and either average or cooler than average temperatures to bring us back to where we need to be,” says Clabo.
There are those homeowners who are heeding these warnings. On a warm fall afternoon Jeffrey Bailie just finished shaking hands with U.S. Senator John Thune.
“Hey guys did you all get recruited and put to work here,” asks Thune.
Thune is standing in front of a large wood chipper parked in Bailie’s driveway. A crew of workers is thinning the trees around the Bailie home. The Senator is on a tour of this fire prone neighborhood. Bailie takes a moment to stress to Senator Thune the importance of government programs that help landowners deal with reducing trees in places like this.
“I’ll tell you without the programs that helped to make this happen today, we most likely would have elected to pass on it quite honestly. But the additional thing is it gave us a platform to go to our neighbors. And people are starting to recognize the importance of you got to take the initiative but a little bit of incentive goes a long way,” says Bailie
Bailie had his property cleared last fall. But fire managers stress it’s not too late for homeowners to get ready for this fire season. Officials note it’s not only the drought that could make this a difficult spring and summer. The budget sequestration out of Washington could leave fewer firefighting resources this year. Officials say this should be all the more reason for homeowners to prepare their own properties now.