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Crews Battling Black Hills Wildfires Gaining Control


FILE - South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, pictured in January 2019 in Pierre, S.D., traveled to Rapid City to help oversee the fire response on March 30, 2021.

Firefighters on Tuesday began to gain control of wildfires in the Black Hills of South Dakota that have forced the evacuation of more than 400 homes and closed the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Three separate wildfires were burning near Rapid City, with the largest near Schroeder Road in the Nemo area. That fire has burned nearly 8.1 square kilometers (3.3 square miles). But officials said they expected to contain about half of the fire by the end of the day.

"It's not over yet, but we're in a pretty good spot," said Governor Kristi Noem, who traveled to Rapid City to help oversee the fire response.

But the Republican governor acknowledged that fire danger had not passed, declaring a state of emergency until June. She cited "widespread drought conditions, low humidity, high wind and high temperatures that create serious peril for our state." The order allows state agencies to assist in tackling the wildfires.

The Schroeder Road fire has crossed into two neighborhoods near Rapid City, the Pennington County Sheriff's Office said Tuesday. At least one home has been destroyed, as well as several other structures. No injuries have been reported.

"There was quite a firefight last night," said Rob Powell, the firefighting official overseeing the response.

As winds died down throughout the day, firefighting crews worked on the ground and from aircraft to contain the fire.

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 Wednesday. One fire has burned an estimated 47 hectares (117 acres) and is 30% contained. The other is about 4 hectares (9 acres), and officials hoped to have it 50% contained by the end of the day.

The fire near Mount Rushmore threatened 15 structures, including park facilities and private homes, but none have been destroyed, according to Great Plains Fire Public Information Officer Travis Mason-Bushman. He said the fire was near main access roads to the monument but wasn't close to the visitor center.

"The challenge is that it's burning in some pretty steep and rugged terrain," he said. "We need to bring in hand crews."

About 60 firefighters responded to the fire, as well as a South Dakota National Guard Black Hawk helicopter that was dumping water.

On Monday, multiple fires burst up across the region as winds in some places reached as high as 130 kph (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, with about 250 responding.

The governor noted that it was "really early" in the year for wildfires and that battling them had taxed nearly all available resources. Officials said they do not have the firefighters to tackle more large blazes and were instead trying to snuff out smaller ones quickly.

"We're probably one of the first in the nation for 2021 facing this kind of a situation," Noem said.

Rapid City officials said they would not open up evacuated neighborhoods on Tuesday but hoped to allow people to return to their homes early Wednesday.

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 Monday.

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