Fire burns 14,000 acres, impacts a dozen ranchers near Edgemont
EDGEMONT – As of the morning of July 21, the Indian Canyon fire, which began after a lightning strike about five miles southeast of Edgemont, was all but history, 85 percent contained, according to Great Plain Fire Information – this despite four days of temperatures topping 90 degrees, and an expanding level of drought.
Altogether the fire burned more than 14,133 acres, according to fire officials.
Among those hardest hit by the fire was the Stearns family, of Edgemont. Their ranch, composed of both deeded acres and rented acres, was located smack dab in the center of the blaze.
Thursday morning, Melissa Stearns, an Edgemont rancher and owner of Three Corners Insurance Agency in both Hot Springs and Edgemont, talked about her family’s experiences with the fire and its aftermath, how it impacted them. Stearns is married to Jerry, and they have three children – Kaylen, Jared and Jana.
Stearns said the family ranch lost 7,000 of a total of 11,000 acres of the ranch to the fire, about 75 percent of their ground. This included 4,000 deeded acres; 1,100 acres of U.S. Forest Service leased grasslands, and 356 acres of Tennesee Valley Authority land that burned. Stearns said the ranch also experienced “a significant loss of fencing and a significant loss of grazing land. but no cows were lost, none even singed, the calves are okay, too.”
Stearns recalls the fire starting Saturday, July 16, east of Dewane and Flora Stearns place – family who live in town now; the ranch uses their ground for cattle pasture.
“It burned both sides of Indian Canyon Road, and it was very close to taking Dewane and Flora’s building,” Stearns said. “Then it took off southwest, going cross country, and jumped Indian Canyon Road, then Plum Creek Road.”
Great Plains Fire Information (GPFI) bears this out, noting that by 5 p.m. Saturday, the fire had lit up about 6,000 total acres.
Stearns said the family thought the fire was contained on Saturday evening. Sunday morning, Jerry Stearns was moving cows around in the burned area, she said.
“He barely made it back to the house,” she said. “Sunday, it turned vicious. The real damage was done on Sunday. It crossed Hwy. 471, and that’s open prairie, there was nothing there to stop it. Sunday, it got too dangerous.”
Due to wind and dry conditions, the fire doubled in size, consuming 12,000 acres by 8 p.m. Sunday evening, July 17, GPFI noted. The fire forced the evacuation of Cottonwood Heights, a small subdivision of about 20 residences, south of Edgemont.
Stearns said she worried about the firefighters trying to battle the blaze. Reports of fire truck mirrors and other parts melting from the heat of the blaze have been reported during this time.
One of the first things Sunday’s inferno threatened was the Stearns children’s 4-H barn. (The family is heavily involved in the county 4-H program, competing also in state and regional 4-H livestock shows and other events.)
“They stood and watched the fire encroach on the barn and there was nothing they could do,” Stearns remembered. The 4-H barn didn’t burn, but Stearns said experiencing this actually helped stabilize her children, that they “matured five years in two days time.”
She also talked about how the fire put a physical and mental strain on the rest of the family,
Sunday, she said, the family was asked to leave their home because firefighters were fearful they couldn’t save it.
“When we were asked to leave, told that they might not be able to save the house, we went a mile down the road. I just couldn’t go any further. I didn’t want to see it burn, but I just couldn’t leave it,” she said. “There was a lot of physical and mental strain. Our biggest concern was the vital genetics that the family has spent more than 50 years accumulating.”
Helicopters dropping water and fire retardant saved their house Sunday, she said. and when the very large air tanker (VLAT) got into action, Stearns said she could see the fire starting to respond.
Also, Sunday, the Cottonwood subdivision was evacuated and the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Type 1 Team was ordered to the Indian Canyon Fire.
Type 1 teams involve a large number of people and equipment and are multi-agency efforts, backed by some level of national resources and are typically called in for “very large fires, complex incidents and natural disasters,” according to U.S. Department of Interior information. Responding to the fire were about 200 people from the Nebraska National Forest, the Black Hills National Forest, the South Dakota Wildland Fire unit, South Dakota and Nebraska Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) planes, and a Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT), dropping fire retardant.
The fire held at 12,000 acres.
By Monday morning, July 18, at 9 a.m. the fire was still not at all contained. Rainfall Sunday evening helped hold the fire, according to GPFI, but high temperatures and wind remained a concern. About 60 engines and tenders were on scene, along with six hand crews and three single engine tanks.
Again, the VLAT, one of only three in the country, was brought in to drop fire retardant.
By 4:30 p.m. Monday, the fire was listed as 60 percent contained. At 6:30 p.m., the fire total was upped to 13,500 acres destroyed.
On Tuesday morning, July 19, after a global positioning system (GPS) review, the total acres covered by the fire were upped to 14,133 acres. Containment was at still 60 percent, but no injuries and no structure losses occurred.
GPFI reported that “significant loss to rangeland and hay have been reported,” that the fire impacted about a dozen ranches, along with U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management ground.
Continuing to contain the fire and mopping up were the order of the day, and Type 1 team resources were demobilized.
John Koller, a rancher who lives on the other side of the Cheyenne River, north of Edgemont, but lost about 100 acres of ground south of the river in the fire – enough for about two cows, he said, smiling – was feeling the pain of fellow ranchers who’d lost more Thursday afternoon.
“Every blade of grass matters in a drought,” Koller said. “If you run out of food for your cattle, you run out of income, an economic impact. You need to fill them up daily. It doesn’t have to be high quality food, but something to chew on.”
He talked about using carryover hay as a substitute feed but said ranchers who lost ground would have to cut back their herds because there simply wasn’t enough grass available for forage between the drought and the fire. There’d be some “hard choices” facing these ranchers, he said: sell off their herds, take them to a feedlot or try to carry on.
He believed some were insured against this kind of risk. He was not, however, a personal risk choice.
Stearns mirrored some of his statements.
“We’ll be using every resource we have to hold on to the ranch. We will sell down some cows,” she said, noting also that their hay supply didn’t burn. “We’ll wean early, look at cows and make a decision on who stays, who goes to the sales barn. There are always cull cows – the fence riders and others.”
“The grass will come back,” Stearns said, “but we need rain to do that. When it does, it will have taken out cactus, sage and improved the ground. But we also have 30-35 miles of fence to put in. The feds will help with this – NRCS and FSA, both are involved on various acreages of the ranch – but it’s not fast with feds.”
Koller also said the grass will come back, with rain, but with the drought it’s likely to be weakened, and was not expecting to see the positive side of the burn until perhaps next spring.
Stearns was mostly thankful, though.
“This ranch wouldn’t have made it without the Thompson family, the firefighters, the helicopter that saved our house,” she said. “The community has also been great – the Harrison (Neb.) community stepped up to offer help, my (insurance business) customer base has been offering help and letting us know they’re thinking of us, praying for us. We’ve had people who helped, calls, Facebook message, well wishes coming from across the USA. It all adds up.”
“For the future, we’re going to focus on the county fair, and hope for the state fair this year,” she said.
Meanwhile, on July 19 four more lightning-ignited fires sprang up near Smithwick. One, the Fisher Creek #2, took place about 13 miles southwest of Oelrichs, five miles shy of the Nebraska line. Ignited by equipment running on private land, it burned 56 acres before being contained that afternoon.
Fire season came early this year and appears to be sticking around.