ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. --
Ellsworth Airmen worked side-by-side with more than 330 firefighters from districts across four surrounding states to combat a wildfire consuming Custer State Park that began Dec. 11.
“A downed power line was the original cause to the fire, the winds were really bad that night and knocked a tree on top of the line,” said Kobee Stalder, a public information officer assigned Custer State Park. “We’ve got a fairly good handle on the fire now. We’ve brought in our heavy tankers, done some retardant drops and have dug a lot of dozer lines along the west of the highway. The biggest concern was structure protecting and defense.”
Overnight, the fire grew from six square miles to 55 square miles due to the winds ravaging the area.
“It was kind of the perfect storm,” Stalder said. “It’s a real rugged area with steep canyons with winds rushing between them where there was already fire to begin with. The winds ripped through that canyon and blew the fire down further southeast. The winds were howling pretty bad, and because the priorities went to structure protection, we didn’t have the active resources to protect that spot. That’s how we got our 35,000 acres in 12 hours.”
After the fire exploded in size, firefighter teams across the region were called in to help. One of those teams, consisted of five Airman from Ellsworth AFB.
“We got called out Tuesday night around 9 p.m.,” said Airman 1st Class Christopher Chenault, a firefighter assigned to the 28th Civil Engineer Squadron. “When we got there we were assigned to echo division and were stationed on the other side of the fire. Our main responsibility was to secure the structures we were posted at from the fire.”
Near the teams location, the fire was rolling up the hill. It was only a matter of time until the flames were right on top of them.
“We did a remarkable job,” Chenault, the driver operator said. “Once the fire broke over the hill, we were ready. We worked very well with the other agencies assigned to our division and stopped the fire on our end before it reached the buildings.”
Wildfires can pose a serious threat to surrounding communities, making the prevention of these fires all the more important.
“This time of year you just want to be aware of your surroundings,” Chenault said. “A fire like this can happen in the blink of an eye and can be started from something as simple as a flick of a cigarette, or hitting a rock with the lawnmower. Be prepared and stay wary.”