Brookings Fire Chief Darrell Hartmann scouts the fire line on Crow Peak near Spearfish on July 1. Brookings sent six firefighters to complete two-week shifts in western South Dakota and Wyoming this month; more left Thursday and Friday. Photo courtesy of Mandi Cramer
• Crews head west to help douse fires in the hills
BROOKINGS – Thirsty as the land may be here in the Brookings area, our fires have not reached the heights and danger levels of those in western South Dakota.
So, as they do every year, several Brookings volunteer firefighters have alerted their families and employers – most taking vacation time from their regular jobs to go to work on the fire line – packed up their gear and headed west for two weeks or so of defending territory that is not their own. Mandi Cramer, 25, is a Colman native and Brookings Fire Department volunteer. She joined the first team in leaving June 25, returned July 10 and left again Thursday.
“I love it,” Cramer said earlier this week. “It’s kind of like you’re just out there working in the heat; it’s hot but you don’t necessarily notice it. You’re out in the fresh air. It’s the camaraderie amongst your fellow firefighters that you’re working with, it’s just awesome.”
For her first trip to the hills this summer, Cramer deployed with firefighter Jim Kriese and Brookings Fire Chief Darrell Hartmann. Her father, Colman volunteer firefighter Bruce Cramer, deployed at the same time with his team, as did teams from Trent and Parker.
Deputy Chief Pete Bolzer and firefighters Brandon Long and Jeremy Scott followed two weeks later, to relieve Hartmann’s team. Bolzer deployed again Thursday with four Brookings volunteer firefighters, and two more fighters followed Friday morning.
Brookings belongs to Coyote 1 Wildland Association, a cooperative of nine departments – Brookings, Aurora, Colman, Colton, Parker, Trent, Renner, Volga and Wentworth – to train for and fight wildland fires.
Hartmann said Northern Great Plains Interagency Dispatch Center in Rapid City alerts Coyote 1 to needs in western South Dakota and sometimes Nebraska and Wyoming, and the association agrees to send a brush truck, pumper and/or tactical tender to the fire.
Paid for work
The City of Brookings agrees that its equipment can be used, and it’s paid for mileage and usage. The firefighters, too, are paid for their time.
“So, that’s the incentive to go out. Especially when you can work over 200 hours in two weeks,” Hartmann said. “It’s not big pay, but it’s a nice little paycheck.”
When the team left Brookings June 25, it was first assigned to the Crow Peak fire.
“It was a fairly good-sized fire, just west of Spearfish,” Hartmann said. “The second one was the Soldier Fire, again just west of Spearfish. The third one we were assigned to was called the Ghost Fire, and that was in Wyoming, just west of Bear Lodge National Park.”
Cramer said for the first fire, her team completed clearing woods that had been initially cleared by bulldozers, provided water support to the hand crews and called in hose lays on a lot of steep hills.
At the Soldier Fire, they started hose line, then filled hand line and mopped up. They also slept at their work site, called “spiking out,” so as not to waste time with a lengthy trip back to camp each night.
At the Ghost Fire just north of Sundance, Wyo., they provided support for the back burn.
Even when sleeping in the vicinity of a fire or working with it in plain sight, Cramer said she feels “very safe.”
“And that’s just about knowing the objectives of what you need to do and knowing that safety is the No. 1 priority,” she said. “Situational awareness, they always talk about. Look up, down and around.
“Everybody is big on safety,” she added. “They really stress the 2-to-1 work-rest ratio, to make sure you’re ready to go again for the next day, because it’s such a physically demanding job.”
That’s 16 hours on the job, eight hours off, Hartmann said; the eight hours usually includes prepping equipment for the next day, eating, calling home and sleeping.
Preparing for fire
Firefighters are limited to working 14 days before they must take a minimum of two days off. For the team of Hartmann, Cramer and Kriese, the assignment ended last week with severity duty inside Custer State Park. There was no fire, but they were helping to prepare for a sizeable controlled burn this fall by clearing small pine trees away from a buffalo fence by 10 yards on either side.
When Bolzer’s team arrived as replacement, it was not assigned to a specific fire, but rather to help with day-to-day operation at Custer State Park. That’s because the area was in a red flag fire warning due to temperature, relative humidity and wind conditions, and a fire could break out at any time.
“Somebody would drop a match on the ground, it’s going to burn,” Hartmann said. “So, they were in a red flag warning while they were out there, so they didn’t want to tax (the firefighters) with doing a lot of physical work – in case they had a fire, they were fresh to go.”
Park duty included alerting visitors to the level of fire danger each day and talking with people in the campgrounds; a public relations job.
“They were kept busy, but they weren’t physically on a line all the time,” Hartmann said.
Though the team was hoping to serve its full two weeks, it was released after just three days on the job. Hartmann said in situations like this, the state must decide whether it is best to pay these extra fire teams to stay in the area, in case a fire breaks out, or to dismiss them and hope they’ll return if there is a new fire.
If they go home, it’s left to local fire departments to make the initial attack on what could become a massive wildfire.
“You’d think out West River they’d be able to do it. Well, they’re what you call initial attack: That’s their backyard, they go fight it,” he said. “(But) if we’re willing to release resources to go out and help, they’ll let those people go home so they can protect their home front.”
Learn more about Coyote 1 and see updates from firefighters serving in the hills, on the Coyote 1 Wildland Association Facebook page.
Contact Charis Prunty at firstname.lastname@example.org.