SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Dry conditions and high winds whipped up several wildfires in the Black Hills of South Dakota on Monday, March 29, forcing the closure of Mount Rushmore National Memorial and evacuations as the largest fire threatened the outskirts of Rapid City.
The Schroeder Fire, as the largest wildfire has been dubbed, has burned more than 800 acres, forced evacuations of about 500 people and destroyed at least two homes and some outbuildings, officials said in a Monday afternoon press conference in Rapid City.
No injuries or fatalities have been reported from the fire, and it's not yet known how it started, they said. Wind gusts of up to 80 mph were reported in the Black Hills area Monday morning.
"I do want to remind everybody that this is an incredibly fluid situation, that these winds are a major factor, and that as they shift and change, and we get those gusts, that's when the fire can jump and we're going to have to stay pretty mobile," said Gov. Kristi Noem, who traveled to Rapid City on Monday to oversee the fire response.
The fire is threatening homes on the outskirts and within the city limits of Rapid City. The fire started just west of the city, among one of many small housing developments nestled among the outer edges of the Black Hills and headed east before moving south. Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom said he saw his neighbor's house engulfed by the blaze before he was evacuated from his home.
"It touches all of us," he said. "I'm just thankful for all the resources that are here."
The Schroeder Fire remains uncontained as of 6 p.m. Monday, although federal, state and local agencies are working to fight the blaze. All aircraft were grounded due to high winds, said Rob Powell, incident commander for the Schroeder Fire. But he was optimistic the firefighting was paying off.
"We're making good progress on the flanks and hopefully with a break in the weather we'll be able to keep this buttoned up and keep this from crossing the highway," Powell said, referring to U.S. Highway 44, a major traffic route that runs from Rapid City south then east into the hills.
Jay Esperance, director of the wildland fire division of the state Department of Agriculture, lauded the initial work to fight the fire, but acknowledged it could take more time than usual to get the bulk of help from agencies outside the state.
"Unfortunately, as you might guess, this isn't really fire season," he said. "A lot of the agencies aren't really geared up for fire season, so it might be a while before we get a lot of those outside resources."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency authorized funding to substantially pay for the firefighting costs.
Several other smaller fires in the Black Hills include a 75-acre fire in the Keystone area that shut down access to Mount Rushmore National Memorial and closed the site Monday until further notice, officials said.