Grass fire burns 20,000 acres in northwest South Dakota

Smoke could be smelled for miles and the sky blazed red through the night in northwest South Dakota on Thursday, January 14. A grass fire broke out just after 4:30 p.m. in Adams County, North Dakota, just across the border from Lemmon, South Dakota.

Wind speeds in Lemmon at the time were 30 to 40 mph with gusts as high as 56 mph, with low humidity around 68%. Those high wind speeds and dry conditions combined with an unusual lack of January snow cover caused the fire to quickly spread to the southeast. 

“We had a high of 58°F. to 60°F. on Wednesday. It has been great all winter – like Kansas weather,” says Lemmon Fire Marshal Shane Penfield. “Ultimately it was dry and windy, and that was the perfect storm.” 

Penfield says in addition to sending 40 of its own firefighters to the blaze, the Lemmon Fire Department immediately requested and received aid from nearly 20 area fire departments from as far as 100 miles away. 

“When I first responded and made it out to the main anchor point, there were 20- to 25-foot flames,” he says. “It was unbelievable.” Several farms and ranches were evacuated and the fire departments set to work with structure protection measures. Other agencies and individuals offered assistance hauling water and plowing fire brakes.

Around 11:00 p.m. Thursday, the south-spreading fire was stopped about 12 miles south of Lemmon when it reached the Grand River. A few hours later, a section of fire to the west reignited.

As of midmorning Friday, January 15, Penfield says the fire is 50% contained and is no longer spreading. The fire, which traveled more than 20 miles and was at some points 4 miles wide, burned an estimated 20,000 acres on 19 occupied farms and ranches. Fortunately, no homes were lost, although one ranch headquarters received extensive damage.

Two firefighters received non-life-threatening injuries and were taken to a nearby hospital, but no other injuries were reported. Most of the people who were evacuated have returned home. Penfield says he has not heard reports of loss of livestock at this point. Fences were cut and other measures were taken to allow livestock to escape if needed.

The cause of the fire is not yet known.

Penfield says the community response has been overwhelming. “People are calling and wanting to give hay to ranchers who have lost hay,” he says. “We’ve gotten so much food and so many offers, it’s unbelievable.”

Photo: Josh Olson captured the photo above from his home. “To give you an idea of how large the fire is, we live 10 to 20 miles northwest of it and it spans as far as my camera could see right to left, and this was in the middle of the night,” he says. “Such a sad situation.”

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