Driving around Lemmon, S.D., a smoldering smell from the coal black fields continues to exhale through the atmosphere, echoing the flames that flared through just a week prior.
On Jan. 14, a flare ignited and disastrous winds of 50+ mph erupted the flames. In just a matter of hours, the fire rocketed and at times, was four miles wide and traveled over 20 miles of grassland and crops.
By the assistance of over 21 departments from both North and South Dakota and other surrounding agencies, the flames were finally 100% extinguished Jan. 17. However, the blackened fields of over 16,000 estimated acres will continue to see long-term effects.
“This isn’t just your hay bales burning up or just grass that may grow back, this is a very long-term thing. We’re talking years,” Executive Director Jennifer Suter of the Lemmon Chamber of Commerce said.
The Lemmon Chamber of Commerce held a meeting Tuesday to assess the damage and how to help the agriculture community. Over 75 people showed up, from experts to ranchers, providing input on how the community should move forward. Currently, hay and fencing equipment are of the greatest necessities. With the help of surrounding states, hay donations have been coming in every day, Suter said.
A RANCHER SHARES WHAT HE SAW
Sean Seamands, 39, is a fourth-generation small rancher located in between Hettinger, N.D., and Lemmon, S.D., and the fire just missed his place. Just moments after finishing up regular chores, which was about 4:15 p.m. Jan. 14, Seamands was notified by his parents that a fire was burning through. With the vigorous winds and lack of precipitation in the ground, Seamands knew that this was going to be disastrous, he said, adding that being in the middle of Lemmon and Hettinger, it would be a while before first responders would show up due to the severity of the fire.
After seeing the alarming flames from the bathroom window, Seamands hopped in his truck with his father Greg and then fired up the tractors. His first instinct was to get the tractor started and get a disc plowing through the field.
“A lot of times when you get a disc hooked up and you go through and turn that top layer of soil over, it makes a nice layer of dirt on the top and it’ll take that grass and basically flip it,” Seamands explained. “Sometimes, there are guys that actually go through the fire on the edge of it and let their disc overhang and that helps put those flames out. Basically it’s kind of the same thing as if you were kicking dirt on a fire on a campsite. That’s basically what a (disc) does.”
Then Seamands immediately called 911 to alert authorities of what was going on. He told his wife to grab what they could from important papers, photos off the shelve and stuffed laundry from a basket into bags and drove out of the area.
The fire was about 80 yards of his shelter belt, which entailed six rows of trees. Just on the north side of that shelter belt, the fire had whipped through approximately 30 yards, igniting some of those trees and surrounding tall grass.
“You’ll panic a little bit but there was just so much stuff to get done, and I honestly don’t really remember a lot of the faces that I saw that night. People that were driving by, stopping and asking, ‘What do you want me to do?’ It was just kind of chaos for a little while until the fire department showed up,” he said.
Most of his cattle were on the west side of the house in the feedlots, and weren’t affected by the fire.
“Fire is one of those things where you don’t have to teach an animal to be scared of fire; that’s kind of embedded in their brain,” he noted.
However, other neighbors in the area were not as lucky, and are still dealing with the aftermath of smoke inhalation. One neighbor had to put down a handful of bred heifers because of the blowing effects of the smoke.
“The scary thing about this is immediately when we saw it through the window and it lit up the sky. You knew it was big,” he remarked. “Then you realize that when it’s that windy out and there’s no snow and it hasn’t rained, you know that that’s going to be going faster than what you can handle at first until you get extra help.”
For Seamands, seeing the fire just about a half to three-quarters of a mile from his property was enough to see for a lifetime.
“… You immediately know that until it gets put out, there’s all those other people down wind of it that are in the same boat as you. They have cattle locked up, most of their machinery is probably parked in the barns and it’s winter time, so a lot of guys won’t plug in their combines. It’s so much money invested in farming and it’s not easy to do in the first place let alone, in the middle of winter you have a fire come flying through and the whole thing you’ve been working over the past 20-30 years and some, 80-90 years, could be gone just like,” Seamands noted, as he flicked his three of his fingers together.
Afterwards, Seamands and his wife reflected on what they would take from the house if and when an incident like this would occur in the future and they only had 15 minutes. However, with farming and ranching, there’s so much to consider.
“There’s a lot of things that you can do to be better prepared but that’s going to take into investing some money. It’d be nice to have a big ole fire truck and a heated garage for the middle of wintertime but does a guy have the amount of money to spend on something like that when you may only use it once or twice every three or four years?” he said.
Flare ups and embers of grass persisted throughout the night. Although the fire was devastating to the crops and pastures in the area, the effects could have been much worse.
“In a matter of 8 hours, there were so many people that could have been affected by that and could be homeless (or) their ranch pretty much destroyed, and that’s when you know that everybody works just as hard as the next guy to survive in farming and ranching. To think that there’s a possibility that tomorrow they might not have a place to go to,” he said. “I just felt so bad for everybody that was downwind past us and just hoping that everything was going to be okay and nobody would suffer anything real severe.”
NEIGHBORS HELPING NEIGHBORS
Just outside of Shadehill, S.D., a few miles south of Lemmon and off U.S. Highway 73, Cindy and Kermet Kahl were beating out their regular chores. Kermet Kahl was just coming back to his home in Shadehill from his ranch in Grant County, N.D., when he heard the news of the fire.
“It was about 4:30 p.m., and he called me from town and said, ‘What do you know about this fire west of Lemmon?’ And I said, “Nothing.’ I didn’t know there was (a fire) because I had been in the house. And he said, ‘I’m going to go up on a high hill west of town and I’m going to see what’s going on,’” Cindy Kahl said. “And it was just blowing so hard and so when he got up there and it wasn’t long, he called me and said, ‘Get the horses in. This thing is moving a whole lot faster than you realize. It’s coming right straight toward our place.’”
Cindy Kahl ran outside to the red barn and started gathering up their five horses. Already antsy and heavily prancing around, Cindy Kahl had to do everything in her power to get the halters on the horses as the winds violently spurred through the lands.
As soon as Kermit Kahl got back to Shadehill, he helped his wife load the horses into a trailer and they drove to a neighbor’s house westward of the fire and south of Grand River. They left the horses in the trailer and ventured back down the road to get more stuff from their yard and house.
At about 6:30 p.m. Jan. 14, the fire was ever present in the north and moving rapidly to the east.
“It was just glowing. It would flare up and go back down and then you could see it was traveling again,” she said, adding, “... The air currents — the way it would flow — there was one time that, it looked like there were tornadoes of fire and then there would be a pillar of about 100 feet in the air and it was all flames. There was nothing stopping it. The firefighters, all they could do was try to keep it back away from the houses and stuff like that. It was just an eerie glow, for miles and miles and miles. So all you could do was stay out of the way and watch. The force of the wind was the real problem.”
Though it’s human nature to panic in the face of fire, the community of Shadehill, Lemmon and other surrounding areas pulled together whether it was making sandwiches for the firefighters who battled the flames throughout the next few days or making sure each neighbor was okay.
“I was just concerned about our neighbors and hoping that everybody got out, that’s what I was concerned about… It was scary because when you see that big of a glow all over, my main thing was just let’s get these horses out of here and get them to safety. Head west with them. As far as the house goes, we’ll get what we can out of here and I guess that’s why we pay insurance,” she said, with a sheepish chuckle. “Because that can be replaced but people and your animals can’t.”
Fencing crews have already begun stepping up to help ranchers replace burnt down wire and poles. If you’re interested in helping out with monetary or fencing donations, contact Suter at 605-374-5716.