SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Dry weather, relatively low humidity and breezy weather are all contributing lately to prime conditions for dangerous fires. This has led several South Dakota counties to ask residents to avoid open burns.
KELOLAND News reached out to some of these county officials.
Yankton County Director of Emergency Management, Paul Scherschligt discussed his call for no open burning on the 16th of November, adding that this is now the 4th day in a row that they’ve asked people to avoid burning.
There have been no major fires yet in Yankton County in recent days, said Scherschligt, though there have been some small incidents. Overall, Scherschligt wants people to be aware of the danger, however, noting that “conditions are ready to go” for a major fire.
These conditions he cited are brought on by lack of moisture, windy weather and the large amount of dead and dry vegetation on the ground. “We need moisture,” Scherschligt said.
One concern Scherschligt also mentioned was his awareness that some in the area are waiting to light tree piles. While conditions may seem suitable one day, it’s important to look to the future as well, as these fires can take days to weeks to fully burn out.
Despite these concerns, Scherschligt says the people of the county have been very compliant, with only a few people lighting small piles who had been unaware of the request not to burn.
There is no formal burn ban in place in Kingsbury County, says Emergency Management Director Cindy Bau. Burn ban declarations do not happen automatically in the county, she said; rather they are issued on a case-by-case basis.
Despite the lack of a declaration, Bau is currently asking residents to please avoid controlled burns.
Bau cited many of the same issues as Scherschligt but said that, unlike Yankton County, Kingsbury County has had a handful of fires, adding that crews were out three times on Wednesday.
Most of the fires, said Bau, are in fields.
On an optimistic point, Bau did say that most of the farms in the county have by now completed their harvests, with only a few still working in the fields, which decreases the risk of mechanical fires.
KELOLAND also spoke with Trevor Keating, Chief of the Arlington South Dakota Volunteer Fire Department.
Keating was able to tell a bit more about the fires Bau mentioned, noting that two involved hay balers and one was for a grain cart.
The low humidity and lack of moisture make the area more vulnerable to fires, said Keating, adding that when the wind comes up, it definitely makes things more challenging.
Keating also spoke on the impact harvest can have, telling us that it is much easier to fight a fire in a harvested field rather than in an unharvested one. It is easier to get through, for one thing, and also easier in terms of visibility.
Visibility can be a challenge in another way, Keating said. Crop fires, he explained, produce a white smoke that can be more difficult to spot in the sky, and when the winds come up, they can disburse the smoke, making fires harder to find and identify.
While the crews are pretty good at navigating the rural parts of the county based on the calls they receive, Keating noted that it can be easy to start second-guessing yourself if you’re not seeing the smoke in the area you’re searching.
So far this harvest season, Keating, who’s technically on two local departments, says he’s responded to about half a dozen harvest-related fires. These fires can be caused by a number of things, he explained, from bearings going out on a piece of machinery, a spark from hitting a rock in the field or from debris or trash building up around an exhaust.
One thing that makes this time of year especially hazardous is that so much of the vegetation on the ground has aged out, leaving it dry and perfect for starting a fire.
A major piece of advice from Keating: If you notice a fire, call for help immediately. He says that often people will attempt to handle a field fire on their own, and only call for help when it gets too far out of hand. “We can always stand down,” he said.