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Emergency declared by state because of fire danger

A persistent lack of rain and expectations that it will continue to be scarce led South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds to declare a statewide emergency July 20.

Rounds made the declaration during a meeting of the state's Drought Task Force. A drought monitor lists much of the north central part of South Dakota as D3 or D4. D4 is the highest drought rating.

The Standing Rock Complex Fire has burned 25,000 acres in north-central South Dakota. Blazes will continue to ignite, experts say, if current conditions continue. Rounds declared the emergency so all available resources can be used to combat effects of the climactic conditions.

By all accounts the state will stay dry. State Climatologist Dennis Todey said the drought spread statewide in the last 30 to 90 days because areas that were doing all right are experiencing short-term dryness. Some regions have less than half their average precipitation. Small amounts of rain are predicted for some areas but large amounts aren't expected until fall in many areas, Todey said.

The federal government has released Conservation Reserve Program acres in 31 South Dakota counties and five more could be released by Monday, July 24, said Dennis Campbell of the United States Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency.

Producers can graze animals on the released CRP acres if they have the permission of a landowner participating in the program in their own county or one 150 miles from the county line. The state is allowing haying of ditches and lifted restrictions on overweight trucks for hay haulers.

Hits to the state's feed-finder website have increased, said Larry Gabriel, South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture. The site connects people needing hay with livestock owners who want to sell it. Last year brought a banner hay harvest with 20 percent of the crop in the country located in South Dakota, Rounds said.

To help livestock producers deal with a shortage of water, Rounds said the Drought Task Force is working on using water from the Oahe Reservoir to fight fires leaving local supplies alone as much as possible. South Dakota is also working with other states to pressure Congress to provide more disaster relief.

Long-term, Rounds said, the task force wants to maintain the viability of pastures where some feed is available so that farmers and ranchers aren't forced to sell their breeding stock.

"The more water available for domestic purposes not used to fight fires, the better off these farmers and ranchers will be," Rounds said.

Rounds said he wants to make sure that local volunteer firefighters aren't fatigued from battling the persistent blazes. He's authorized the Department of Agriculture and the Wildland Fire Supression office to contract for the use of a service air tanker and wildland fire strike forces that include equipment like brush buggies. And, if necessary, he'll call in other firefighting agencies to help. In large grass fires the air tankers and trucks are needed to knock fires down quickly, Gabriel said.

"At the present time we simply have to be able to fight fires as quickly as possible and get fires stopped as soon as possible," Rounds said.

Declaring the emergency gives access to emergency management funds that can help pay for drawing firefighters and equipment in from other states, he said.

For local firefighters battling the recurring grass fires the days blur together, Gabriel said. Firefighters in Perkins and Corson counties have probably been fighting several fires for five or six days, he said. He's heard that "folks in Bowdle were pretty strapped. If these guys are played out we have to get some people in to help them out," Gabriel said. "It's the neighborhood thing."

Rounds has asked people across the state to do what they can to help. He asked residents in water-scarce areas to conserve, and he had declared a statewide week of prayer for rain. "I know some people roll their eyes, but the good Lord looks out for us," he said. "Prayer most certainly will help."

For more information, call your county extension agent, the state agriculture department at 800-228-5254, or visit the state's website at http://www.state.sd.us and click on the Drought Task Force link.