South Dakota: Cold Fire

(Originally published at 5:21 p.m. MDT, April 2, 2016; more photos are in another article)

(UPDATE at 11 a.m. MDT, April 7, 2016)

The Incident Management Team reports that the Cold Fire south of Custer, SD has now been mapped at 1,895 acres. The Type 3 Incident Management Team transitioned to a Type 4 team led by Incident Commander, Brice Stanton Thursday morning.

Demobilization continues and many more resources will be released today. Firefighters will continue to staff and work the fire through the weekend or longer as conditions warrant.


(UPDATE at 8:23 a.m. MDT, April 6, 2016)

There is not much change in the status of the Cold Fire. More accurate mapping using a GPS receiver decreased the reported size by 0.2 percent to 1,896 acres. Even though there is a control line around the entire fire the Incident Commander is only calling it 60 percent contained.


(UPDATE at 10:07 a.m. April 5, 2016)

The Cold Fire 8 miles southeast of Custer, South Dakota remains at approximately 1,900 acres. Today firefighters will use a GPS receiver to more accurately map the perimeter to determine what they hope to become the “final” acreage.

On Monday they used an ignition device mounted in a helicopter to burn areas inside the control line. This neutralized fuels that could have flared up and caused problems today for the 195 firefighters during the very strong winds predicted at 35 to 40 mph with gusts to 50 mph. The humidity will be low, at 14 to 19 percent. There is about a 30 percent chance of rain late this afternoon and maybe even some snow tonight.

weather forecast cold fire
The hourly weather forecast for the fire area on Tuesday and Wednesday. Click on the image to see a larger version.

There are still three helicopters available at the Custer Airport, but the P2V air tanker left Rapid City Airport this morning, returning to Chattanooga after being requested for the Halls Top Fire near Edwina, Tennessee. Photos of the helicopters are at Fire Aviation.

On Monday Trevor Papenfuss, the Incident Commander Trainee said:

We still have a lot of work to do and this fire still has potential to grow. But firefighters have worked hard and have done a great job of setting themselves up for tomorrow’s forecast. The fire could have easily become much larger if it had not burned into areas that had recently been treated for fuels reduction through prescribed burning and mechanical treatment.


(UPDATE at 8 p.m. MDT, April 4, 2016)

This evening the incident management team released a pretty good map of the Cold Fire eight miles southeast of Custer, South Dakota.

Cold Fire map

There have been no major changes in the fire since our previous update this morning. The fire started April 2.


(UPDATE at 11:22 a.m. MDT, April 4, 2016)

Cold Fire
Firefighters burn out from a fire line in Wind Cave National Park on the southeast corner of the Cold Fire, April 3, 2016.

The Cold Fire eight miles southeast of Custer, South Dakota has not grown much on its own over the last 24 hours, but firefighters are burning out from roads and indirect fire lines some distance from the fire edge. While containing and controlling the fire, this tactic increases the size of the blaze which was estimated at 1,905 acres Tuesday morning — 1,258 acres on the Black Hills National Forest, 319 acres in Wind Cave National Park, and 328 acres on private land.

Approximately 200 personnel are currently assigned. This includes 44 engines, three type 2 hand crews (20 people each), two type 1 helicopters, one type 3 helicopter, 2 fixed wing aircraft, and 1 air tanker. More crews and equipment have been ordered and are enroute according to the incident management team.

The weather forecast for Monday includes a change in wind direction, with northeast winds of 5 to 10 mph shifting to come out of the south at 7 mph by 10 a.m. This could test the indirect fire lines on the north side of the fire. Forecasters are expecting 64 degrees and a 27 to 32 percent relative humidity. The Haines Index is 5, which means there is a moderate potential for large plume-dominated fire growth.

Wind watch Tuesday

Tuesday’s weather prediction is a concern, with with very strong west-northwest winds beginning in the morning and increasing in the afternoon to 25 to 35 mph with gusts near 50. The winds will continue through the night and diminish to 15 mph on Wednesday. There is a 20 percent chance of a little rain or maybe even some snow late Tuesday and Tuesday night, with higher humidities on Wednesday.

The red dots on the map below represent the most recent growth of the fire on the northwest side, due primarily to burning out from roads and fire lines. Click on the map to see a larger version.

The red and yellow dots represent the approximate location of heat detected by a satellite at 2:42 a.m. MDT, April 4, 2016. The red dots are the most recent. Click on the map to see a larger version.
The red and yellow dots represent the approximate location of heat detected by a satellite at 2:42 a.m. MDT, April 4, 2016. The red dots are the most recent. Click on the map to see a larger version.

More photos of the Cold Fire. Fire Aviation has images and information about the helicopters assigned to the fire.


(UPDATE at 8:25 p.m. MDT, April 3, 2016)

The Cold Fire 8 miles southeast of Custer, South Dakota has burned approximately 1,200 acres according to an estimate at 2 p.m. today from the Incident Management Team.

On Sunday the primary activity was establishing control lines by using fire to remove fuels. Firefighters used hand-held drip torches and an ATV-mounted firing device to ignite the vegetation. On the east side they eliminated grass adjacent to a dozer-constructed fire line. In the portion of the fire in Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, firefighters worked along a two-track road that is not open to the public.

burning out fire line
Firefighters on the Cold Fire observe as they use fire to remove vegetation along a planned fire line Sunday afternoon.

At least 1.5 miles of the fire perimeter are contained along Highway 87, Rankin Ridge Road, and Flynn Creek Road, but the Incident Commander, Matt Spring, is calling the fire zero percent contained.

Copies of the map below were issued to firefighters Sunday morning. We added the white labels for some of the landmarks. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Cold Fire map 4-2-2016
Map of the Cold Fire. Data from April 2, 2016.

One of the two large air tankers that were ordered Saturday arrived at Rapid City Regional Airport Sunday at about 3 p.m. The P2V was not used, in part because the winds were too strong and turbulent. Two National Guard Blackhawk helicopters dropped water Sunday morning. Three privately owned contracted helicopters were available at the Custer Airport: one K-MAX, one Chinook, and a Bell 204L4, but only the 204L4 was used. It dropped numerous loads of water Sunday afternoon while we were there.

Bell 204L4 K-MAX helicopter
A Bell 204L4 (top) landing with a water bucket at Custer Airport Sunday afternoon. The helicopter on the ground in the background (with the fancy paint job) is the K-MAX.


(UPDATE at 12:52 p.m. MDT, April 3, 2016)

The map below shows the APPROXIMATE location of heat detected on the Cold Fire by a satellite at 4:01 a.m. Sunday. It is likely that the fire passed through areas with light fuels, such as grass, and cooled before the satellite flew over, and was not detected in those areas.

Cold Fire map
The red dots represent the approximate location of heat detected by a satellite at 4:01 a.m. MDT, April 3, 2016. Click on the map to see a larger version.

The Cold Fire is 8 miles southeast of Custer and 13 miles north of Hot Springs, SD. The incident management team estimates it has burned about 1,000 acres.

The weather forecast for the fire area calls for west or northwest winds gusting to 35 mph by late morning, diminishing through the afternoon to 10 mph by 6 p.m. The temperature under mostly sunny skies should max out at 62 with a relative humidity of 28 to 33 percent. These conditions could push the fire toward the east or southeast, burning more acres in the two parks, Wind Cave National Park and Norbeck Wildlife Preserve.

Unless the fire is slowed substantially by one of the isolated thundershowers in the forecast, firefighters will probably rely on Highway 87 as a fire break, at least in Wind Cave NP, and may burn out from it as the fire approaches.

The Incident Commander asked for two large air tankers, but as of 12:30 p.m. today, only one is en route. It’s coming from Chattanooga, Tennessee and is a 50+ year-old P2V with radial engines. It’s most likely cruising at about 200 mph, and is expected in Rapid City at about 4 p.m. Unfortunately it’s not one of the “next generation” air tankers that respond to fires at 300 to 500 mph.

It is our understanding that of the 21 large air tankers that will be on exclusive use contract this summer, only four or five are currently working this early in the fire season.


Cold fire
The Cold Springs School was threatened by the fire soon after it started.

Update at 9:37 a.m. PDT, April 3, 2016:

At 8 a.m. on Sunday firefighters estimated the Cold Fire in South Dakota had burned 1,000 acres on the Black Hills National Forest, Wind Cave National Park, Norbeck Wildlife Preserve and private land.

Approximately 150 firefighters are on scene including hand crews, fire engines, and overhead.

Today’s objectives are to provide for firefighter and public safety, protect homes and subdivisions, protect Wind Cave National Park infrastructure and natural resources, and protect wildlife habitat, and Custer State Park.

An Air Attack platform, two National Guard Blackhawk helicopters, two large air tankers, and one light helicopter have been ordered. Yesterday no aircraft were available. A firefighting helicopter is not usually on contract in the Black Hills until mid-summer, and it takes up to two hours to mobilize a National Guard helicopter out of Rapid City if one is available. When the fire started most likely the only large air tankers on federal contract were in New Mexico and Arizona.

cold fire
Photo taken on Highway 87 in the north end of Wind Cave National Park, looking northwest. A ranch house is enveloped in the thickest portion of the smoke.


Update at 11 p.m. MDT, April 2, 2016:

I’ve left the fire and am at a computer now.

The latest estimate of the size of the Cold Fire is 600 acres. It started on U.S. Forest Service land, or possibly on private land near the Black Hills National Forest, and then burned onto the north edge of Wind Cave National Park in an area that was treated with prescribed fire 18 months ago, in October of 2014. Some of the same fire lines used on the prescribed fire are being used again, including Rankin Ridge Road and Highway 87. The fire has moved into the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve and private land.

An investigator was on scene to determine the cause and origin of the fire.

Weather at Elk Mountain
Weather at Elk Mountain, April 2, 2016, a few miles away from the wildfire.

In spite of the strong wind, gusting at 23 to 28 mph in the afternoon after the fire started sometime after 3 or 4 p.m., the fire behavior was moderate. I only saw a few trees torch out. Much of the time early in the fire when it was burning in timber the smoke was very white, appearing to have a high moisture content. In between the wind gusts, at times it looked like a prescribed fire. Last year, 2015, was wetter than normal. That produced a pretty good crop of grass in the prescribed fire area so the wildfire carried nicely, but the lack of heavy and ladder fuels kept the intensity at a low level.

Cold Fire
The Cold Fire burning through the stubble of ponderosa pine reproduction left after the prescribed fire 18 months before.

During the three hours I was at the fire, a vertical convection column of smoke did not develop. This was due primarily to the strong wind which kept it close to the ground out ahead of the fire. If air tankers and helicopters had been available, at times the smoke would have made it very difficult to do anything effective.

A Type 3 Incident Management Team led by Incident Commander Matt Spring has been mobilized.

Portions of Highway 87 and Beaver Creek Road are closed near the fire. No evacuations have been issued. Approximately 150 firefighters are on scene with an additional 250-300 expected Sunday as well as additional fire engines, air tankers and helicopter aerial support.

Additional photos are in another article.

Cold Fire

Cold Fire
Cold Fire photo by Brady Rothschadl


Update at 7:22 p.m MDT April 2, 2016:

The fire has burned into the northern-most part of Wind Cave National Park in the area of the Norbeck Section 2 prescribed fire that was conducted successfully 18 months ago. As it burns through the prescribed fire area the intensity has slowed down quite a bit of course; firefighters are using Highway 87 and Rankin Ridge Road as a fire line.

I don’t think anyone knows exactly the size of the fire yet, but estimates range from 150 acres to 250. Those are just estimates at this stage.

As the sun sets it is getting cooler, and the wind has slowed a little but it is still quite breezy out here.

cold fire
At sunset, looking north from Highway 87 in Wind Cave NP.

I have written this entire article from my cell phone, by the way. Up to this point, all of the photos were taken by me with a cell phone. I’ll post more photos later.


Update at 6:16 p.m. April 2, 2016:

The fire now has spread to the northeast and bumped into a large prescribed fire that was conducted in October, 2014 on both Wind Cave National Park and Norbeck Wildlife Preserve.


(5:21 p.m. MDT, April 2, 2016)

I am at the scene of a new fire in the Black Hills. It was 75 acres at the first report on conditions, west of Wind Cave National Park near the Cold Springs school.

The Incident Commander asked for two large air tankers, an air attack, a National Guard Blackhawk helicopter, and a temporary flight restriction, but was later told no aircraft were available.

It is very windy, and access to the fire edge is a bit of a challenge. It looks like it’s going to be a hand show for a while. There are several structures that are threatened, and the west wind could push the fire on to the north edge of Wind Cave National Park. If it keeps spreading it could bump up against the Norbeck Section 2 prescribed fire from October, 2014.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

3 thoughts on “South Dakota: Cold Fire”

      1. It’s interesting to see you reporting on the ground for this fire. Pictures and info beyond the standard boilerplate that most news organizations pick up about fires is always appreciated!


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