Richardton Fire Chief Jason Kostelecky wanted some peaceful time away from the daily grind at the station, so he traveled to Bismarck — more than 100 miles away. Mother Nature had other plans.
Episodes of flying blankets of snowy rain, carried by winds more than 50 mph on Monday, March 28, knocked down a weakened powerline just north of Richardton. The fallen powerline carried with it a small spark that struck the thirsty North Dakota grass just off of 36th St. SW, turning the once fertile field into an inferno.
The 3.3-mile-long stretch of wildfire proved too much for one fire department to handle, and so Richardton called for mutual aid. Mutual aid came from West Dunn Fire, Golden Valley, Zap, Hebron, Taylor, Gladstone, Halliday and North Dakota Forest Service. Water trucks arrived from Stark and Dunn Counties. Kostelecky said even farmers with plowing discs came in and began helping to contain the fire, which according to Fireman and Mayor of Taylor Emory Vaagen was no easy task.
Upon their arrival, as brave souls pushed through the howling gales and harrowing darkness, Vaagen said he saw a cluster of reflective colors standing on the side of the road.
“As we were driving, we were trying to see if we could see the road, the driver was looking out one side and I was looking out the passenger side...then all of the sudden, I’m like ‘what’s that?’ and he’s like ‘what are firefighters doing standing on the road?’...we got closer to them and we could see their truck was tipped over in a ditch,” Vaagen said.
A minor back injury, to Kostelecky’s recollection, had been the only injury sustained by any of the parties involved but highlighted the dangers present at the scene — even on the periphery of the flames.
Vaagen and fellow Taylor firefighters arrived at their zone and saw...smoke, nothing but, black dusty smoke. The copious amounts of dust created a blanket of darkness so heavy, Vaagen said, it nearly blotted out the sky. Lack of visibility and strong winds made their job a difficult one.
After putting out one section, they would hear the crackled static of their radio saying another section had reignited.
“The wind was so strong it was blowing embers...you couldn’t see them but embers were pelting you...You’d see some flame and you’d try to get over there to extinguish it and to get to it was difficult at times. Just trying to get around other units, (getting) over to get water when you ran out of water,” Vaagen said.
Kostelecky agreed that this was the windiest fire of his 20 year career as a firefighter.
According to the National Weather Service, sustained winds over 50 miles per hour had turned a normal field fire into a serious emergency where life hanged in the balance.
The fire took a couple of hours to contain, Kostelecky said, and the remaining work involved monitoring potential flare-ups.
“At about sunset, we were able to release our mutual aid partners. It got cold, fire trucks were starting to deal with freezing up and stuff like that. As they were freezing up, we basically had to send them back to their bases so they could thaw out,” Kostelecky said.
Small crews from Richardton remained on the scene throughout the night, with watchful eyes monitoring flare-ups and other hazards. By Tuesday morning, a replacement crew had been sent in to relieve their tired brothers and monitor the scene.
Much of North Dakota is in a precarious position, as an unprecedented dry season has left much of southwest North Dakota a tinderbox.
The day-long fight that left miles of charred fields in its wake is Richardton Fire Department’s tenth call of 2021, nearing the halfway point of all of last year’s fire calls.
‘If we don’t get any rain or anything, I worry that it’s gonna be like this all summer,” Kostelecky said.
At the time of the interview, Kostelecky confirmed that raging fires in western South Dakota remained an ongoing fight. As of Wednesday, March 31, Mount Rushmore National Memorial has been closed as fires remain ongoing without containment.