CUSTER, S.D. – Faced with hundreds of acres of debris left behind by tornadoes, crews at Black Hills National Forest are resorting to fire to burn potentially hazardous fuels ahead of fire season.
Tornadoes in 2018 and 2020 struck the rural lands in southwestern South Dakota, leaving behind snapped trees and uprooted vegetation for miles.
The Spearfish Canyon project kicked off in 2021 with hopes that reducing the dead vegetation would make the area more appealing to visitors and reduce the area’s fire potential.
The U.S. Forest Service said snowfall and relaxed winds give crews an ideal setting for conducting the pile burns in the forest, but a recent lack of frozen precipitation could hamper efforts.
At least two inches of snowfall is needed to provide a layer of protection around the pile to prevent embers from escaping and the burn from getting out of control.
"We are taking advantage of the weather that we have today," John Snyder, an acting District Fuels Assistant Fire Management Officer, said in a video release.
Rangers said around 200 piles were burned during the final week of January, with plans to get rid of an additional 500 to 1000 piles during the remaining weeks of winter, if the weather cooperates.
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"We are trying to limit our exposure and our footprint by tackling this in small scales and focusing on multiple days," Snyder stated.
Snyder said crews are making every effort to minimize the impacts of the smoke from the pile burns.
Wildfires in the approximately 1.2-million-acre forest are a relatively common sight from late spring through the fall.
The U.S. Forest Service reports nearly 100 fires occur each year, many of which are caused by lightning.
Rangers are planning for the Spearfish Canyon project to be wrapped up during the next several weeks, ahead of the usually busy tourism and wildfire seasons.