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South Dakota Adjusts to Guard Deployment

by Webmaster |

RAPID CITY -- Because as much as 60 percent of the South Dakota National Guard has been deployed to Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan and Kosovo, Joe Lowe has had to devise new ways to prepare for this coming summer's wildfires in the Black Hills.

"The National Guard has been a huge part of our firefighting effort," Lowe said in an interview this week.

Lowe runs the South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire Suppression, which former Gov. Bill Janklow created three years ago to better coordinate state efforts to fight wildfires, especially in the forests of the Black Hills.

Last summer, Lowe's department had seven Blackhawk helicopters at its disposal. This summer, there will be three.

There will also be fewer Guard personnel and fewer pieces of heavy equipment.

Lowe is replacing guardsmen, in part, with a volunteer corps of local people trained for "nonoperational" jobs in fire camps, away from the fire line.

The volunteers will handle supplies, help with communications and perform other tasks that don't require fire-fighting experience. A Rapid City doctor has volunteered to provide medical services in fire camps.

The first class of 25 volunteers will get basic fire safety training in April. They will also be issued fire gear and individual fire shelters, but Lowe emphasized they will be nowhere near fire lines.

Lowe filled the first training class by word of mouth - mainly with local Kiwanians and members of the South Dakota Civil Air Patrol. To get on the waiting list for the next training, call the state Division of Wildland Fire Suppression at 393-8011.

Lowe will also get help from the state Department of Transportation, which will be "pre-positioning" heavy equipment for use during fires. Some of the department's heavy-equipment operators also will get fire training.

It's harder to replace helicopters, but Lowe said that so far, he has never requested more than three at a time for firefighting.

Helicopters can dump water on fires from buckets suspended beneath them on cables. This year, the Guard will have two new, 440-gallon buckets equipped with pumps, which means they can draw from shallow water.

As in years past, the state will contract with two small fixed-wing, single-engine air tankers to provide quick response to fires.

As they have in the past, Civil Air Patrol pilots will also fly reconnaissance over areas that have received lightning strikes, as they have in the past, but this year, their aircraft will have digital cameras that can send still images to the fire dispatch center.

"The fire manager will see it in real time, and away we go," Lowe said.

Lowe's fire strategy always emphasizes fast, overwhelming and sustained responses to fires when they are still small.

"I was always taught, hit it hard and knock the fire out with your first response resources," he said.

State firefighters responded to 581 wildfires last year, and the first responders stopped all but three or four of them. "You don't arrive at a fire, stand around and scratch your fanny, look around and think about calling a fire crew," he said. "I put the stuff on the road and figure I can cancel it."

The first "stuff on the road" often is a 20-member hand crew, armed with specialized hand tools and supported by small "brush trucks" with tanks of water or fire-retardant foam.

Lowe revived the state's Black Hat hand crew, and it will be back on duty this summer, along with seven hand crews of prisoners from the state Department of Corrections - four based in Rapid City and the others on call in Springfield in eastern South Dakota.

Local fire departments in Pennington County also have new brush trucks capable of spraying fire retardant foam - another Janklow initiative.

Training of state firefighters continues.

Two wildfire division supervisors also have been trained as "air tactical group supervisors," which means they can direct operations from the air.

This spring, a group of state fire division managers will get training to upgrade them from a Type 3 to a Type 2 "incident management team."

A team from Jefferson County, Colo., west of Denver, also will participate in the training, which will be at the Division of Wildland Fire Suppression's headquarters at Rapid City Regional Airport.

Lowe's department has also signed a "memorandum of understanding" with Jefferson County to help fight each other's fires.

Also new this spring, Lowe has contracted with a company that can provide mobile satellite weather reports. The company's meteorologist will work with the state's own fire meteorologist.

The state's Northern Great Plains Interagency Dispatch Center also will be operational again this summer at division headquarters. Federal and state dispatchers share the center.

"It's forced us all to work together," Lowe said.

Lowe has also added an East River fire management officer based in Mitchell.

The dispatch center is the hub for the new digital radio system that state and local firefighters use. It allows them clear access to radio almost everywhere in the Black Hills.

That equipment will be in addition to two command trailers, portable showers and a "mobile cache" of equipment that can outfit 200 firefighters with an array of important firefighting items including, amongst other things, Nomex clothing, hand tools and gas-powered water pumps.

From a firefighter's standpoint, the wildfire division's new mobile kitchen might be the most important change. Sometimes, state firefighters must rely on military "meals, ready to eat." The new mobile kitchen, yet another Janklow idea, comes self-contained in an 18-wheel tractor trailer. It can serve 500 people.