The Cottonwood Fire
Four months have passed since a large grass fire started along Interstate 90 between Wall and Cactus Flat, and was later named the Cottonwood Fire. With the combination of dry conditions, temperatures in the upper 80’s and a high wind warning that day, it was the recipe for a perfect storm. The fire burned over 41,000 acres within a matter of hours and was deemed the 5th largest fire on record in South Dakota history.
As has been evident with many disasters, communities come together to help their neighbors through tough times, and this situation was no different. Right away a local lady wanted to help and started a Facebook page to gather support for those affected by the fire. Having experience with the Atlas Blizzard, we knew how these things can very quickly snowball. As a result, a conversation developed among those wanting to help and a group of people met to develop a plan on how to best handle the relief effort. Following this conversation, we worked together with Silvia Christen with the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association to take the lead in fire relief efforts. We worked closely with Philip Charities, which handled the monetary donations.
Reaching Out to Producers
Through this effort we visited with all twenty-two affected producers helping ensure they were getting needed assistance and we were helping find answers to their questions. Our focus was to really understand what their losses were and what their immediate and long term needs would be. Through these conversations it was very evident that the severity of the losses ranged from small and manageable to the loss of livestock, the majority of grass, fence and even outbuildings. The producers were very appreciative of all the help and just someone to talk to at times.
We also organized an informational lunch meeting so producers could inquire about resources that various entities had to assist with recovery and specific requirements for how things needed to be done. Groups at this event were: the US Forest Service, USDA Farm Service Agency, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Office, SDSU Extension and the Red Cross.
SDSU Extension and the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station wanted to assist the community as much as possible, so the Cottonwood Range and Livestock Field Station was identified as the drop-off and pick-up point for donated fencing supplies. It was a relatively central location with equipment to unload and load supplies. David Gay, station superintendent, assisted many neighbors by helping them load donated fencing supplies so they were able to get some fences into working order to hold cattle. A meeting with Congresswoman Noem was also held at the Field Station. Area producers shared their experiences and needs with her to determine actions she could work on from Washington, D.C. The Field Station lost 1100 acres of grass and 11.5 miles of fence in the fire. However, none of the donated fencing materials were used at the Field Station, as we felt it was more important for area producers to get theirs.
There were many people and groups who came together to help, which shows the great network of support in South Dakota. In the shadow of difficulty, this was a good opportunity for everyone to get to know their neighbors a little better and provide a helping hand. It was great getting to know some of the producers better and working more closely with area agencies to build a relationship for the future.
There are still many unknowns with the longer-term impacts of the fire, but the immediate needs have been addressed. Unfortunately, very little rain came following the fire to give the grass a head-start at growing last fall, so the countryside is still barren. Precipitation is a huge variable in deciding if and when cattle will be allowed onto the Forest Service leases next summer.
SDSU Extension plans to host post-fire grazing workshops this spring to assist producers in managing the burned areas.