‘Moonshine’ fire scars face of Slim Butte in Custer-Gallatin National Forest


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By Bryce Martin

N.D. Group Editor

Just as they were demobilizing last week from the scene of the massive Sheep Draw Fire near Camp Crook, S.D., several already exhausted fire crews were alerted to a 4,000- acre wildfire near Slim Buttes on the east side of Harding County.

With moderate winds and dry conditions, extinguishing the fire was going to be a battle.

More than 25 fire engines, including some from Bowman County’s Volunteer Fire Departments, were assigned to fight the flames that were first reported April 1 by a local volunteer fire department.

The fire, nicknamed “Moonshine,” grew in an area located about 15 miles east of Buffalo, S.D., at the north end of the Slim Buttes Land Unit in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest.

Only 5 to 7 percent of the fire was contained last week, but that number grew to nearly 100 percent as of this week, much to the relief of the area. Some engines will continue to remain on the scene to monitor, patrol and rehab where necessary.

The acreage of the fire shrunk to less than 2,900 acres as of Monday.

Jonathan Moor, public affairs officer with the Bureau of Land Management, spent much of last week inside an incident command post established inside the Harding County Recreation Center.

Large stacks of bottled water, bagged lunches, snacks and a big pot of coffee were at a near-reach for the collection of fire crews and other personnel that were stationed nearly all day and night at the center. Together, they were focused on one task: to see that the Moonshine Fire was contained, extinguished and its effects dealt with properly.

The post was disbanded on Monday as the fire became under control.

An update on the fire released this week said firefighters made good progress in the previous days. The Burned Area Emergency Response Team would begin assessing damages caused by the wildfire on Forest Service land within the week.

Damage to the land was extensive and could easily be witnessed from passersby on S.D. Highway 20, which runs east from the Montana border to Mobridge, S.D. The highway bisects the northern portion of the Slim Buttes Land Unit about 15 miles to the east Buffalo.

Passersby might notice that many of the area’s pine trees remained untouched by the flames. Moor said that was due to high wind speeds catching dry brush and other “fuel” on the ground and rapidly moving on before the trees could burn. Still, the wildfire drastically transformed an area known for its natural beauty into barren, scorched land.

Command crews used a variety of methods to limit the expanse of the fire, which grew rapidly due to dry and windy conditions.

“We went for protection of Reva if (the fire) jumped the road,” said Chris Palczewski, volunteer fire chief with the Bowman Fire Department. He, along with volunteer firefighters Pete Knopp and Sheldon Wyckoff, traveled down to the area last week to assist with the operation. “The weather cooperated and the wind went down. It was mostly on forest service land and they were managing their side.”

Palczewski said he took one Bowman fire truck down to the scene, joining Scranton, Rhame and Reeder volunteer fire departments each with one truck, “but none of us saw much action.”

A helicopter was called in to drop flame retardant on the northwest portion of Slim Butte, a portion of land at the site immediately north of Highway 20 underwent a controlled burn by fire crews and local ranchers brought in disc plows to disrupt the soil along the north side of the highway to help ward off the fire from crossing the pavement.

“It’s truly a joint effort,” Moor told the Pioneer last week.

The fire was dramatically reduced at the end of last week to mostly burning embers and smoldering land; it no longer boasted large flames. While the crews were able to heave a slight sigh of relief, their job was far from over.

“It could happen to where something is smoldering just a little bit and you get a big wind,” Moor said.

That’s the reason some crews will stay behind and monitor the charred land about one week after the fire is out, he explained.

Two firefighters from Reva, whose responsibility was to provide lookout for any new hints of burning on the south face of Slim Butte, said the Moonshine Fire was probably the largest blaze that their department has handled.

Two ranches stood in the pathway of the fire along with infrastructure and power lines, as well as the Reva Gap Campground on the south side of Highway 20.

At the close of Easter Sunday, firefighters managed to protect the two structures and ensured the fire did not cross the highway, which was closed earlier in the week but reopened April 3 — Highway 20 was opened from Highway 79 west near Reva, S.D., to the junction with Highway 85 near Buffalo.

The cause of the fire is currently unknown and is under investigation.

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