Several wildfires in the Black Hills of South Dakota have forced the evacuations of more than 400 homes and closed the Mount Rushmore National Memorial as firefighters battled fierce winds into Tuesday.
Three separate wildfires were burning near Rapid City, with the largest in the Nemo area. That fire has burned near 2100 acres and is on the way to being 50% contained Tuesday evening, officials said during a press conference.
“The fire was more demanding than anticipated due to rapidly changing weather conditions and high wind gusts,” officials said in a morning update on the fire’s Facebook page.
Two smaller blazes were burning southwest of Rapid City, including one inside the grounds of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The monument, as well as surrounding roads, were closed through at least Tuesday.
The fire in the Nemo area, dubbed the Schroeder Road fire, has crossed into two neighborhoods near Rapid City, the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office said.
There have been no reports of fatalities or injuries, but one home, at least two outbuildings and the deck of a residence have burned, said Brian Mueller, Chief Deputy at Sheriff’s Office.
As for the two smaller blazes, there are currently about 15 structures being threatened by the fire, including park employee housing, administrative facilities and a couple of private residences, reported the Duluth News Tribune. A total of 115 acres has been burned by both fires combined, but there have not yet been any reported injuries as a result. Both fires are starting to be contained by state firefighters, officials said.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who traveled to Rapid City on Monday to oversee the response, said the Schroeder Road fire started on private property. “There have been losses and that is tragic,” she said Monday.
Though the fires were starting to be contained Tuesday, Noem urged South Dakotans “to continue to be careful.”
“We don’t need any new fires; it’s extremely dry out there,” she said. “We don’t think we’ll have the increased winds like we saw yesterday, but we are many days into continuing to monitor these situations.”
During Tuesday’s news conference, Noem said that South Dakota “was one of the first in the nation this year for 2021 to be facing this kind of situation” which led to an absence of resources.
As such, the focus of the wildfire division, said Jay Esperance, the division director for South Dakota Wildland Fire, has shifted to ensuring that no new wildfires spark in the region.
“We don’t have the resources to staff another large fire and our key objective will be to stop all new fires as soon as possible,” he said during the news conference
The cause and origin of the Schroeder Road fire is still under investigation, said Mueller.
Wildfire map:Track the Schroeder fire near Rapid City, Mount Rushmore
Sheriff: ‘I watched a neighbor’s house go up in flames’
On Monday, winds in the area reached as high as 81 mph. Firefighters initially responding to the Schroeder fire found “a fast-moving ground fire in extreme fire danger condition,” officials reported. They immediately called for assistance from firefighters around the region.
U.S. Forest Service support services specialist Halley Legge said wind speed is still an issue as about 250 firefighters continue their work.
Gusty northwest winds continued Tuesday across the western South Dakota plains, the National Weather Service in Rapid City tweeted. Winds of 30 to 40 mph with gusts of 55 mph were expected, the weather service said.
Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom said his family was among those who were evacuated.
“I watched a neighbor’s house go up in flames. So it touches all of us,” Thom said at a news conference.
On the other side of the state, a red flag warning was in effect, with the National Weather Service cautioning of fire danger in southeastern South Dakota, northeastern Nebraska and northwestern Iowa until Tuesday evening.
Strong wind will be sustained up to 30 mph with gusts up to 45 mph through Tuesday afternoon in some areas, according to the NWS, which said that any fires that develop will likely spread rapidly.
Contributing: Associated Press, Stephen Perez, Sioux Falls Argus Leader