Ranchers south of Hettinger and Lemmon, S.D., are wondering what they’re supposed to do for grazing lands after what was intended to be a prescribed burn in the Grand River National Grasslands got out of control.
The fire scorched more than 14,000 acres of federal and private land over 22 square miles Wednesday and Thursday in Perkins County in northwest South Dakota.
The U.S. Forest Service said it was intending to burn 130 acres of dead crested wheatgrass when the fire broke containment areas and spread throughout the national grasslands and privately owned lands because of dry and windy conditions.
Grand River District Ranger Paul Hancock said the Forest Service determined weather conditions were within the prescription for a controlled burn, but winds picked up as the area being burned was about to be extinguished.
“We’re ordering a team to investigate,” Hancock said Thursday as the fire continued to burn. “That’s going to provide us more details. At the moment, what we know is the ignition for the prescribed burn was coming to an end. We had spot weather forecasts on site and they were calling for winds within the prescription. Winds did pick up right at the end of ignitions. It took it (the fire) east up a draw and we were chasing it from there.”
Forest Service officials estimated the blaze to be 75 percent contained as of Thursday night.
“We’re expecting full containment tomorrow afternoon,” said Babete Anderson, the public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service’s Grand River District Office.
With land burned as far as the eye can see in some places, area ranchers are asking why the burn happened in the first place while others are more concerned about their livelihoods.
“Everything is burnt,” Laurie Casper said. “It’s unbelievable.”
Casper’s father, Bob Herman, operates a cattle ranch about 10 miles south of the North and South Dakota border. Casper, her brothers, Ryan and Jamie, and their families all have stakes in the ranch.
The family estimates that nearly 95 percent of their pasture and hay land, where they raise more than 1,000 cattle, has been burned. Casper said the Hermans have private lands and graze parts of the national grasslands through permits with the Grand River Valley Grazers Association.
The Hermans were able to save their cattle, but are also at the height of calving season, which leads to more issues since they were forced to put nearly all of their livestock in a much smaller calving corral.
Casper said their summer, fall and winter grazing lands were all burned in the fire.
“Now we pray for rain,” Casper said.
Though no injuries, structural damage or lost livestock have been reported outside of a 1920s-era schoolhouse near the Hermans’ ranch, area residents said Thursday that the Forest Service didn’t heed the advice of residents who told the agency not to burn after they were informed a prescribed burn would be taking place.
“Several neighbors told them not to do it,” said Bridget Keller, whose family runs Harris Keller Herefords south of Lemmon. “It’s so dry. We’ve had no moisture at all.”
According to the National Weather Service, Perkins County is listed as having extreme drought conditions.
Anderson said winds carried the fire east and south Wednesday.
“The wind wasn’t consistent,” Lemmon rancher Duane Meink said. “It was doing everything yesterday. We had that front coming in, forecasting rain and snow. They knew there was a front coming in. Whenever there’s a front coming in, you don’t know what’s going to happen. How can you burn anything when the wind’s not consistent?”
Gary Johnson, whose ranch is 9 miles south and 9 miles west of Lemmon, said the blaze came about 10 feet from his house before firefighting crews extinguished it.
“They must have got there in the nick of time,” Johnson said.
Johnson, who has lived on the ranch his entire life, said he was helping his neighbor when he saw the fire approaching his home. He wasn’t sure which fire crew put out the fire.
Meink said the fire got about 300 yards from his house before it was contained by firefighters, though it did destroy a long-standing tree grove.
Anderson said crews from Lemmon, Hettinger and throughout northwestern South Dakota, southwestern North Dakota and eastern Montana were trying to help contain the fire, which was slowed Thursday by calmer winds and morning snow.
“It seems that the higher humidity and the cooler weather helped settle the fire down,” Hancock said.