Wildfires in northwestern Nebraska tripled in size in less than 24 hours last week, as strong winds pushed flames through the rugged, rural terrain and onto the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. Photo from The Associated Press.
Inferno invades Pine Ridge
Wildfire chars almost 80,000 acres in Neb., S.D.
By Jesse Abernathy
Native Sun News Editor PINE RIDGE — A fast-moving wildfire has jumped Nebraska’s state line into the Pine Ridge Reservation, searing almost 30,000 acres more as it winds its way through the southwestern corner of this sprawling, isolated Native American homeland. Spreading into the reservation on Aug. 31 around 5 p.m., the fire burned northwest of Pine Ridge Village before moving toward the Oglala District later that evening. Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellow Bird Steele immediately responded by declaring a state of emergency and issuing an evacuation order initially for the reservation communities of Slim Buttes, Calico, Tobacco, Number 4 Payabaya, Lakeside and Oglala, then eventually for the additional communities of Red Cloud and Loneman for a total of eight communities. Heat, strong winds and tinderbox conditions combined to aid in the fire’s rapid northwesterly spread. At least 1,600 residents were evacuated from their homes on the evening of Aug. 31, with subsequent emergency shelters opened in Pine Ridge Village and at Prairie Wind Casino & Hotel. With the exception of the Slim Buttes community, the evacuation order was lifted on Sept. 1 as the fire had been mostly confined to an area south of U.S. Highway 18. Tribal officials say that at least two homes in the Slim Buttes community have burned to the ground, though no injuries or fatalities have been reported. According to a news release from the president’s office, the fire – initially dubbed the “Welcome South Dakota” fire and now officially known as the “Wellnitz North” fire – primarily covers areas in the Wakpamni and White Clay districts where the once-evacuated communities are located. In recognition of its point of origin, the prairie fire was named after the “Wellnitz South” fire in Nebraska, which was sparked near the Wellnitz Ranch area that lies adjacent to the intermingled Pine Ridge Reservation and South Dakota state lines. All told, the Wellnitz fire has burned more than 77,000 acres across the two states – 50,000 in Nebraska and 27,000 in South Dakota. Cis Big Crow of the president’s office, who serves as the tribe’s Red Cross designee, is currently processing assistance forms for the families who lost their homes in the fire. “The Red Cross organization provides temporary assistance for three days’ worth of lodging, food and clothing,” Big Crow said in the news release. “These families have lost all their belongings so this temporary assistance will not meet their needs. They will need home replacement. In addition, they will need household items, additional food supplies and clothing.” She said those wishing to donate any of the needed items to families can contact the president’s office for further information. In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has authorized the use of federal funds to help with firefighting costs for the Shannon County blaze. However, the funds do not provide assistance to individuals who own homes or businesses and do not cover other infrastructure damage. Shannon County, where the Wellnitz North fire is raging, lies entirely within the exterior boundaries of the Pine Ridge Reservation. A series of at least seven wildfires were ignited in northwestern Nebraska following a weak but lightning-charged thunderstorm the evening of Aug. 28 that left little moisture in its wake. By Sept. 2, two of these wildfires had charred over 270 square miles near the Chadron and Crawford area. On the afternoon of Sept. 3, The Associated Press reported that the so-called Douthit fire northwest of Crawford, which scorched nearly 46 ½ square miles, was all but contained. The West Ash fire had charred more than 91 square miles east of Crawford. The two fires were a combined 75 percent contained and full containment was expected by Sept. 6 or even sooner, federal fire spokeswoman Patricia Bean said Sept. 3. Following an aerial survey Sept. 2, officials lowered the damage estimate from the Wellnitz fire from about 150 to about 120 square miles burned. As of Sept. 3, more than 35 volunteer firefighting departments including Native American teams were battling the wildfires in South Dakota and Nebraska, and the official total containment figure for the Wellnitz North fire on the reservation was 27 percent, according to tribal spokeswoman Donna Salomon. Tribal emergency manager Wayne Weston along with officials from Pine Ridge Agency’s Bureau of Indian Affairs met with state officials from South Dakota and Nebraska as well as with a federal Type II incident management team from Colorado on the morning of Sept. 2 in Rushville, Neb., to discuss having the heavy duty fire strike team join in fighting the blaze on Pine Ridge. “I am very glad that we were able to qualify for a FEMA declaration,” said Weston in the tribe’s news release. “We will have a Type 2 Strike Team coming in from Colorado to aid us, and to provide much needed relief to the teams working here since (August 31). … The Air National Guard arrived here to help us. They have three planes and two Blackhawks (helicopters) dispatched which has been a tremendous help. I am really pleased and appreciative with the overall response from all agencies and programs.” Conditions are likely to remain ripe for fires for at least several more weeks because of the hot weather and drought. No rain is predicted until the night of Sept. 6. Following an aerial survey of the Wellnitz North fire on the morning of Sept. 4, Weston said the fire was “pretty much close to being contained,” but the tribe hadn’t yet received official notice of containment. “ … Right now, there’s just smoldering here and there, and fire units are out trying to put those out right now,” he said. Weston said federal fire officials estimated the fire should be completely contained sometime later in the day on Sept. 4 or sometime on Sept. 5. Steele’s most recent emergency declaration marks the third time this summer he has had to make such a pronouncement. Steele also declared emergency conditions following a destructive hail storm last month and a July storm that produced excessively high winds, razing several homes. Further, tribal officials say the fire is the fifth natural disaster to befall the reservation since June 1. Including the two damaging storms, the tribe remains locked in the grip of an ongoing drought and has also endured a brush with hantavirus that took the life of one young girl. The Oglala Sioux Tribe has established a donation account with the First National Bank of Gordon in Nebraska to help defray costs incurred by the wildfire. The bank’s address is 134 North Main St., Gordon, NE 69343. Donations can be made out to “Oglala Sioux Tribe/Wellnitz North Fire.” For more information on how to help, contact Donna Salomon, public relations coordinator for the president’s office, at (605) 867-8427 or 867-8422 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. (The Associated Press contributed to this report.) (Contact Jesse Abernathy at email@example.com)
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