The Cottonwood Fire that started Sunday near Wall burned almost 60 square miles of western South Dakota rangeland and killed more than 130 cattle.
The fire burned across both public and private land. Local officials say about 15 families ranch in the burned area. Besides cattle losses, miles of fencing are burned and tons of hay that was set aside for winter are now gone.
It was just three years ago ranchers in the same area were dealing with losses from the early October blizzard called Storm Atlas. While this massive wildfire did not kill as many cattle, or impact as many ranchers, many of those in the burned area still suffered real losses.
“It’s overwhelming right now,” says Bernice Crew who ranches with her husband near Wall.
Bernice Crew and her husband Grady lost about 40 head of cattle to the Cottonwood fire, others in the heard suffered severe burns are being checked by a veterinarian. Crew says ranchers are also worried about miles of fencing that are now gone.
“Fencing is really expensive, you know we put it in slowly over the years and we’re OK, but when you have to fence everything. We have neighbors who lost everything around their homestead, they maybe didn’t lose their house or barns, but they don’t have anywhere to put their cattle because it’s free range out there,” says Crew.
Crew says while many suffered heavy losses, she thanks both firefighters and neighbors for coming together.
“Everybody was there, amazing the firefighters, Rapid City, Spearfish, as well as all the little towns Fort Pierre, Pierre, it was amazing.." says Crew. "And neighbors with all the firefighters in a pickup box pulled behind, everyone was there, as well as food and drink, absolutely that’s western South Dakota and we know how to do that best."
That community spirit in western South Dakota may be more important in the coming months as the families who lost cattle, hay reserves and fencing work to recover. Local officials say they are currently assessing the needs and possible resources available, including government funding and private insurance to help recovery.
US Senator John Thune has sent a letter to the US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack requesting USDA assistance in livestock disaster programs similar to those implemented following the 2013 blizzard.