SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Deadwood firefighter Ken Hawki wasn’t far from the fire hall on June 29, 2002, when “I could see the smoke billowing. I knew we had ourselves a cooker.”
Hawki was right. The 2002 Grizzly Gulch fire covered at least 11,500 acres including burning 3,315 acres of national forest lands on the Northern Hills Ranger District, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
The fire forced evacuations of Lead and Deadwood. The fire lasted 13 days before it was under control on July 12.
The Deadwood Volunteer Fire Department and the city of Deadwood are marking the 20th Anniversary of the fire with an open house today that includes photos, video and comments from officials about the fire and fire preparedness.
The pace at which firefighters responded during the first few hours was rapid and critical.
Lead and the state’s wildland fire unit was the first to respond. They quickly ask for help from Deadwood.
“At the time I was working for the phone company. I was working by Belle Fourche,” firefighter Bill Glover said. Glover had just stepped down as chief in February. “The call came in and on my way back I could see this huge column of smoke.”
Hawki said as he was driving toward the fire, he stopped to tell an emergency official to tell the local hospital to plan to evacuate.
“He asked ‘when?’ I said ‘Right now,'” Hawki said. “I said ‘This fire is gonna run.'”
NASA’s Earth Laboratory used running to describe the Grizzly Gulch Fire. “In some areas, the fire was spreading from the crown of one tree to another (running),” NASA said of the fire.
“Our main focus was getting people notified of evacuation,” Hawki said. “This town (Deadwood) evacuated in a half-hour.”
But, Hawki said, emergency crews can’t take all the credit for the quick evacuation. “When you look out the window and see a 200-foot flame, you get the hell out in a hurry,” Hawki said.
Glover was near a campground close to South Dakota Highway 385.
“People evacuated in a hurry,” Glover said. One camper left so quickly he left the extension out on his camper trailer.
Before that, he had lost his generator and firefighters had to saw off the jacks from the camper, Hawki said.
“People evacuated in a hurry,” Glover said.
Deadwood was evacuated on Saturday, the first day of the fire, and people were allowed to return home on Monday.
Lead residents needed to stay away from home for longer. About 2,500 residents were evacuated from Lead on Sunday and returned home on July 4.
Evacuees were sent to Donald Young Center at Black Hills State University in Spearfish and Camp Rapid in Rapid City, a June 30 fire update from the state said.
The KELOLAND news video below is about Lead residents staying at Black Hills University during the 2002 fire.
“At the time the fire’s behavior was extreme, with “torching, spotting, and running.” In other words, the fire was primarily burning along the ground, with entire trees occasionally erupting into flame (torching). At the same time, burning embers were being thrown ahead of the fire (spotting),” is how NASA described the fire.
Hawki and a fire crew were working in an area near the county fairgrounds within two hours of getting the fire call when spotting set one house on fire.
Embers from the fire caught climbing vines on the house on fire and it spread into the attic. Firefighters couldn’t see the fire until the flames were in the house. That house and another were destroyed in the fire.
Hawki noticed a shift in the wind at this site. “The wind stopped. I said ‘do you feel that. The wind’s changed 180 degrees,'” Hawki said.
Hawki said the stillness and shift indicated the fire was sucking in oxygen. Crews quickly left the site and saw what he thought were 200-foot flames in the rearview mirror.
Another firefighter told him later that the flames actually reached a height of 300 to 400 feet at that time in that area.
State reports on the fire said 60% of the fire had been contained on July 4 and 85% was contained on July 6.
Glover said help from air tankers was pivotal.
“One thing that probably saved Deadwood was there were air tankers at the airport,” Glover said.
The tankers had been used for a smaller fire in a state to the west but were diverted to the Grizzly Gulch fire, Glover said.
The air tankers dumped suppressant on the fire. “That turned the fire to the south of town,” Glover said.
The fire destroyed at least eight structures and burned acres of trees. At least 900 personnel responded to the fire including local firefighters and those from across the U.S.
KELOLAND News reported on one Deadwood resident cleaning up after an air tanker dropped fire suppressant on his home in 2002.
Deadwood is recognizing the 20th anniversary of the fire not to celebrate it but as a reminder that fire caution, preparedness, protection and prevention are important, Hawki said.
“It makes you appreciate the training you’ve got,” Glover said of fighting a fire like Grizzly Gulch.
The public also needs to be prepared, Hawki said.
The community has changed since 2002 and many may not know of fires like Grizzly Gulch or the 1959 fire, Hawki said,
The open house can “remind people of what can happen,” Hawki said.
Hawki compared the Grizzly Gulch fire to the fire of 1959.
The South Dakota Wildland Fire unit said the 1959 fire almost destroyed Deadwood.
“I was in kindergarten at the time but I remember that main street got so hot the asphalt started buckling,” Hawki said of the 1959 fire.
The cause of the Grizzly Gulch fire may still be in contention. The state sued Black Hills Power in 2002 citing that the fire was caused by a company power line hitting trees. The federal government joined the lawsuit in 2003. Black Hills Power maintained that lightning struck the power pole and caused the fire.
The lawsuit was settled in 2006 with Black Hills Power maintaining its power line did not cause the fire but agreeing to pay the state and the federal government $5.9 million for costs associated with the fire, according to a company news release accessed through the SEC.
KELOLAND website reporter Eric Mayer contributed to this story.