Black Hills fire slows, but toll includes tanker crash
Citing better weather conditions and hard work, officials fighting the White Draw Fire in southwest South Dakota say the forest fire is now 50 percent contained.
The upbeat assessment Monday night followed a tough day that included the crash of an air tanker fighting the blaze, killing at least one crew member.
The White Draw Fire north of Edgemont was burning nearly 5,000 acres, fire information officer Julie Molzahn said in a news release. She said 292 people were fighting the fire, aided by a helicopter doing water drops. The news release said 22 structures and 31 outbuildings were still threatened by the blaze.
Earlier Monday a shift in the wind helped crews build fire lines in areas that burned the previous day, fire spokesman Brian Scott said.
"A little bit here and a little bit there we'll burn, but hopefully not a lot today," Scott said Monday.
No people or livestock had been harmed by the fire that was sparked by a vehicle Friday afternoon in the Edgemont area, about 80 miles southwest of Rapid City. However, an Air Force C-130 plane belonging to the North Carolina National Guard crashed while fighting the fire Sunday.
Capt. Ruth Castro, a spokeswoman for U.S. Northern Command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, said the plane was flying from that base. David Eaker of the Great Basin Incident Management Team said six people were aboard, but no other information was immediately released.
However, relatives of Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal, of Mooresville, N.C., said they were told he was killed in the crash. Three people were retrieved from the wreckage and taken to a Rapid City hospital, the Fall River County Sheriff's Office told the Rapid City Journal. Calls to the sheriff's office and the hospital Monday were referred to U.S. Northern Command, which did not comment on the report.
The military grounded the remaining seven C-130s indefinitely, leaving only 14 federal contracted heavy tankers available to fight fires until investigators determine what caused the crash. The planes were filling up with fire retardant and flying out of Peterson Air Force Base to fight fires in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota.
All eight C-130s were dispatched to Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs last week to fight Colorado wildfires. The C-130 can drop 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in less than five seconds, covering an area one-quarter of a mile long by 100 feet wide, and can be refilled in less than 12 minutes, according to the Defense Department.
Castro said the Charlotte, N.C.-based tanker made at least two drops of retardant on the White Draw Fire on Sunday before crashing at about 6 p.m.
The fire was burning mainly on U.S. Forest Service land, although residents of five homes were asked to evacuate voluntarily over the weekend.
Steep terrain, rattlesnakes and hot, dry weather challenged the 181 people battling the fire. The National Weather Service has forecast temperatures in the 90s through the end of the week.
Frank Maynard, Fall River County's emergency management director, described the terrain as "very, very rugged, straight up and straight down cliffs.
"You could take a vehicle in there if you wanted to get rid of the vehicle when you're done," he said.
Rancher Mark Hollenbeck said he will have to sell most of his 250 cattle and 200 sheep because the fire burned about 1,000 acres of grass on his 1,600-acre ranch five miles north of Edgemont. He also expects to lose customers at the guest lodge he runs on his ranch because the scenery now features blackened pastures.
The rancher also said he was upset because fire crews were called away from his ranch early Saturday morning, when they were making progress in snuffing out the flames while the wind was low and the humidity was high. Hot, dry winds later in the day fanned the flames and burned more of his property, he said.
"It means I'm going to be selling livestock because I have lost a considerable amount of my grazing, which means I will lower my income potential for the next several years," Hollenbeck said.
Scott said he did not know anything about pulling firefighters off Hollenbeck's ranch Saturday, but he said crews are trying to save ranchers' grass after first protecting the lives of firefighters and the public.
"We all know grass is king out here," Scott said. "For these ranchers, that is their livelihood."
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)