State officials and Lead fire volunteers discuss possible wildland fire move to Spearfish... A VERY bad idea effecting response times.
by Wendy Pitlick, Black Hills Pioneer
LEAD — State officials have not yet decided to move forward with an idea to move South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire offices from Lead to Spearfish, but if they do it will be a business decision that is based on fire science, finances, and employee residences.
That’s what Craig Price, cabinet secretary for the Department of Public Safety told a packed room that included members of the Lead Fire Protection District board, leaders and members of the Lead Volunteer Fire Department, and concerned community residents at a special meeting on Thursday.
The purpose of the meeting was to exchange information about the state’s reasons for considering a move, and for residents to share their reasons for opposition.
Joining Price on Thursday were the Director of S.D. Wildland Fire, Jay Esperance, and Division of Wildland Fire Chief of Operations Jay Wickham.
When the Lead Fire Protection District built the new fire hall in 2011, the State Division of Wildland Fire signed an agreement that the agency would occupy space in the building if it was built to their specifications. Because of that agreement, the Lead Fire Protection District added about $1 million in extra space to accommodate the state division.
In exchange for the space, the State Division of Wildland Fire agreed to a 10-year lease — the maximum allowable lease term according to state law. Under the lease, the state would pay $1,800 per month, plus a portion of the utilities to the Lead Fire Protection District. The Lead Fire Protection District uses those funds to pay the loan on the fire hall building.
That lease expired on Dec. 31, 2020. Instead of entering into another long-term lease, officials extended it through Dec. 31, 2021, a move that raised concerns about the future of the wildland fire division in Lead. Several inquiries revealed that state officials were considering a move to Spearfish.
Currently, the Division of State Wildland Fire has a lease to occupy space in the fire hall through Dec. 31, 2022, while officials determine whether to make a move. The move would mean an annual loss of at least $20,000 to the Lead Fire Protection District, as well as losing full-time wildland fire protection personnel. Currently, there are two full-time State Wildland Fire employees whose offices are based at the Lead Fire Hall.
“There are business decisions to look at and see if there is an opportunity for us to improve our operations with wildland fire and better serve the state,” said Price. “We are looking at opportunities in the Spearfish area. We don’t have anything signed or anything on paper that says we are moving out. But we are looking at options from a business and operational perspective.”
But Lead Fire Chief Tim Eggers asked the state officials to explain their justification for even considering a move. Unlike Spearfish, which has forest fire protection resources from the U.S. Forest Service, Lead does not have immediate resources beyond its volunteer fire department. Therefore, the Lead department relies on the state presence for immediate fire response in the forest.
Jay Wickham, chief of operations for the S.D. Division of Wildland Fire said part of the state’s consideration is based on fire science. Ponderosa pines, which are more prevalent in the Spearfish area, thrive with fire and tend to be younger stands that burn easier.
Comparatively, the spruce trees in the Lead-Deadwood area do not burn as often or as easily. Wickham said by state law the Division of Wildland Fire protects land within the Black Hills Fire Protection District, which is the area between the forest service boundary to Interstate 90 to the Wyoming border. The area around Lead is an exception since the Division of Wildland Fire has an agreement with the Bureau of Land Management to protect the land.
Additionally, Wickham explained that both of the state Division of Wildland Fire employees live in Spearfish. Because of that, officials believe Spearfish may be a better location for offices, in order to more effectively recruit future employees.
“I don’t think response time if they were to be in Spearfish with an office would be less than what it is here,” Price said. “In some cases, it would be faster because they can go right to the office in Spearfish and drive up.”
Wickham also reminded the crowd that whether the Division of State Wildland Fire moves to Spearfish or not, they will still provide fire protection for the Lead area.
Jay Esperance, director of S.D. Division of Wildland Fire said he used a traffic application on his phone to research driving times from Spearfish to specific locations around Lead, with his research yielding a difference of about four or five minutes. But citizens who live in and around the Lead area invited him to make the same comparisons by actually driving a fire truck during peak tourist season.
“Your app is crap because there are only two ways to get from Spearfish and that is Maitland Road and Deadwood,” said Ron Moeller, who lives just outside of Lead city limits. “I live in the unincorporated area west of Lead and there is a small ATV area. (Last year) an ATV stalls out and catches fire. It started burning in the brush. Because the wildland fire guys were here they were the first ones on the scene and that fire was contained to just under an acre. You moving to Spearfish, forget about it. My home would have been gone. You don’t move these people. You keep them here.”
Longtime firefighter and former Lead city administrator Mike Stahl took exception to the state’s reasoning related to where employees live. “I really don’t believe where you’re located should be based on where a firefighter lives,” he said. “If they’re here eight hours a day, that’s eight hours more than they would be. Can I extrapolate that comment and say that if the next two employees live in the Lead-Deadwood area that would cause you to move back here?”
The difference in Spearfish’s urban growth and Lead’s vacation housing boom in the forest is another reason the Lead-Deadwood area needs to retain a full-time presence from wildland fire officials. In Lead, more and more houses are being built deep in the forest, a move that further warrants the need for wildland fire protection, said Al Williams.
“We’re here in the woods,” Williams said. “I would like you to explain to me how you can justify the growth as an excuse when that growth is different.”
While Lead is experiencing major growth patterns with expensive homes built in the forest, its volunteer base in the fire department is shrinking, which is another factor Eggers asked the state to consider. “We’re seeing this growth, but we don’t have more people to draw from to add to our forces and train them up,” Eggers said.
Assistant Fire Chief Dave Allen said that Lead has about 15 active firefighters on its roster, five of whom are available to respond on a regular basis. That compares to Spearfish’s fire department of 45, including at least one paid employee who is on call.
“If you take a resource for daytime response away from the Lead-Deadwood area, we’re struggling,” Allen said. “We’ll be lucky to get one or two people here if something were to happen right now. In the summertime, it might take me 20 to 30 minutes to get here, depending on where I’m working in the county. These guys are here and they can get that fire out.”