275 evacuated from Myrtle Fire
Published: Thursday, July 26th, 2012
What started as a “small,” 600-acre fire soon grew to 1,500 acres and forced many from their homes in the Pringle area. The Myrtle Fire, located one mile east of Pringle, started Thursday, July 19, and threatened 33 residences and numerous structures. The fire was originally reported at 1:30 p.m. and was soon estimated at 600 acres. By 9 p.m. that night, the fire had grown to 1,500 acres with 0 percent containment. Over the weekend, crews got a handle on the fire and were able to contain it to 40 percent, mostly located around the northern perimeter.
Monday evening the fire reached 75 percent containment and was found to be human-caused after a Forest Service special agent determined the most probable cause was a Forest Service road grader that was performing road maintenance. The fire most likely started when the metal blade fractured a rock on the road surface, igniting the grassy fuels on the roadside. Forest Service officials expect the fire to reach full containment by Wednesday, July 25.
A Type One team was ordered Thursday night and arrived Friday while the Type Three team on scene continued to strategize fire suppression tactics while monitoring fire behavior, terrain and weather forecasts.
“Historically in the Black Hills, we reach containment of most large fires in five to seven days, but this one could take longer,” said Matt Spring, Type III incident commander. “It’s all dependent on the weather.”
Custer County Sheriff Rick Wheeler and emergency coordinator Mike Carter led the evacuations of 33 residences, with many voluntarily evacuating. Highway 385 from Pringle to Wind Cave was closed, as was Wind Cave National Park. The American Red Cross opened an emergency evacuation center at the Armory in Custer, which accommodated people from Beaver Creek and Rifle Pit Road. A second Red Cross shelter opened in the Mueller Center in Hot Springs for those south of Wind Cave and Argyle Road.
“We were concerned about the area south of 385 and Pringle,” said Carter. “We had no concerns about Custer.”
Two hundred personnel were on scene to fight the fire Thursday and Friday, but that soon grew to over 600. Firefighters had to combat extremely hot and dry conditions, which made the task extremely difficult.
It was announced Friday, July 20, morning that the fire had grown to 7,500 acres but quickly jumped to over 8,000 within an hour. The fire was only five percent contained.
Over 240 residents north of Argyle Road to Highway 385 were placed on evacuation notice, with crews setting up “trigger lines” along the way. Once the fire crossed those lines, Search and Rescue crews, the Custer County Sheriff’s Department and the Highway Patrol evacuated residents within the area. Other areas placed under evacuation or pre-evacuation notices were from Pringle to Highway 89, including Argyle Loops A and B, Argyle Road, Highway 385 north to Hot Springs, back up to 385 to Rifle Pit Road, Rifle Pit back to Beaver Creek Road and Flynn Creek Road to Apple Valley. Dozens of roads, including Rifle Pit, Argyle, Beaver Creek and Cold Springs were closed, as was Highway 385 from Pringle to Wind Cave. The Mickelson Trail from Pringle to Minnekahta Junction was also closed.
“Objectives are to provide for firefighter and public safety and structure protection. Crews will continue to reinforce and improve indirect handline and dozer line on the north side of the fire,” said Dennis Jaeger, deputy Forest supervisor. “Crews are also using existing roads, trail systems and natural barriers to maximize suppression efforts.”
“We called in all forces from all agencies,” Spring said in a press release. “The National Guard, Black Hills National Forest, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service. It didn’t really matter what agency, if they were a firefighter, we wanted to utilize them.”
On Friday only one large air tanker was working on the fire. The next day five other helicopters and air tankers aided in the fight.
Power outages were common in Pringle and Custer as the Myrtle Fire burned through power lines and poles. Power crews worked throughout the night to return power to most in the affected areas. The power at Wind Cave National Park was purposely shut off and communications continued on hand-held radios charged by batteries. It has since been turned back on.
On Saturday, the fire was 15 percent contained and at 9,075 acres. The South Dakota National Guard joined the battle on Saturday, with two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to conduct water-bucket drop operations and trucks hauling supplies from Rapid City to the fire. Support, included helicopter crews, truck drivers and other personnel.
“Bucket drops really support the firefighters on the ground, cool off hot spots, save structures and help get some containment on the fire,” said Spring. “Helicopters won’t put a fire out by themselves but help ensure the firefighters’ safety by knocking the intensity down so it’s manageable for the firefighters.”
Thunderstorms over the weekend brought much needed rain, but also unwanted lightning. Over 40 fires started, sending small local crews to the hotspots. All the fires were either quickly contained or controlled.
Firefighters were able to contain the fire to 20 percent by Saturday night, largely due to a higher number of personnel and a higher percentage of humidity. By Sunday, July 22, the fire was estimated at 10,080 acres and 40 percent containment. Within the fire perimeter, fire crews discovered several structures of the historic Williams Ranch were burned and destroyed. The homestead was built in 1896 by Albert and Emma Williams who operated a sawmill in Shirttail Canyon in 1894. The ranch was under the ownership of the Forest Service.
Evacuations for all the areas other than Argyle Road and east of Highway 89 were lifted. Residents living along Highway 385 and in the fire area were allowed to return to their homes. However, Highway 385 and other areas were limited to residents of the area only. After a meeting on Monday, Highway 385 was opened to the public. Wind Cave was opened Tuesday, July 24, and all other evacuation notices were lifted Monday afternoon.
As of Monday, July 23, the Myrtle Fire was estimated at $2.1 million in damages. Firefighters were able to hold the fire at 40 percent containment.
“These firefighters have done an amazing job,” said Bill Hahnenberg, Type I incident commander. “They have made great progress on a very difficult fire.”
Hahnenberg, Wheeler and District Ranger Lynn Kolund held a public meeting in Pringle on Sunday night, where the fire wasn’t the only hot topic, as many tempers flared.
“Why hasn’t there been information available about the fire?” one resident asked.
“We have had information out there,” Kolund replied. “You can always call dispatch, fire information centers or read the releases online.”
“Does it look like I have a computer available to me?” the resident said. “I had to evacuate from the fire.”
Fire management teams gave out numbers for residents to call for more information on the fire and any road closures still in effect. Fire officials hosted a second public meeting in Pringle on Monday night.
Despite a few irritated residents, many applauded and thanked the firefighters for their hard work. Pringle residents posted signs thanking firefighters and those involved in the effort.
“They managed to control the fire without a single living residence being destroyed,” one resident said during the meeting. “It’s a blessing. We can’t thank them enough.”
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