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First time volunteer; helping fight the George Smith Fire

Matt Arthur pounds out a flair-up before it could get a hard start.

I was rooked into joining the Philip Volunteer Fire Department. I was rooked by myself. I did it. I blame myself, but I thank the other guys in the department. I now can't understand why more people don't volunteer.

As a reporter, I attended the monthly meetings of the Philip-area volunteers. I had gotten to know some of the people, especially Chief Marty Hansen and Assistant Chief Roger Williams.

Suddenly, I found myself eligible to become a member. I had attended three consecutive meeting, was in fair-to-average health, and had shown interest. Now I was being fitted into safety pants, boots, helmet, jacket and a face mask. Wait a minute! I'm not ready to do what these people do. I'm no hero, they are.

After that day, the fire whistle had gone off several different times. I was out of town, or was in a building sound-proofed enough so people had to tell me about the whistle half an hour later. I was half-eager, and yet was half-dreading that whistle.

During lunch on Thursday, July 13, I was telling my children that I would see them after work. I headed out the door, and the fire whistle blared. It sounded at least eight times as I headed for the fire hall. The temperature was over 100 degrees. That many whistles couldn't be for a car wreck or an EMT back-up. It had to be something big. What was I getting myself into?

At least two calls had reported that a fire was blazing near Bridger along the Cheyenne River west of Milesville. A faint whisp of smoke could already be seen from Philip. In the midst of three trucks heading out, Marty looked me in the eye, "You want to go?"

"No, but that doesn't matter," I said. "I'll get my gear." In minutes Jack Hansen's water truck was heading North with Jack, Jim Bouman and me in the cab.

The smoke covered an increasingly larger portion of the horizon. The wind gusted to push the truck around a bit on the road. The other guys, experienced fire-fighters, talked easily, commenting about what was probably burning according to the changing amount and darkness of the distant smoke. "If it is a grass fire, it's going to be a very long, hard day and probably night," they said almost in unison.

Trucks from Milesville were already there. Wall trucks met with us as the Haakon County Sheriff Larry Hanes directed how to get over gravel roads and paths to the blaze. Bouman got out to join another Philip crew. Jack would teach me perimeter clean-up, while Jim would help on the front line. The gravel paths degraded to dirt paths, then turned more interesting as we climbed up, down and sideways over the Cheyenne River breaks. The truck was top-heavy with 200 gallons of water and spraying equipment on back. Huge plumes of black, or stark white, smoke billowed upward as we followed other trucks toward it.

What was later to be officially called the George Smith Fire, was scorching a horizon of grassy, tree spotted slopes and ravines. Jack crested a slope in time for me to see a cedar tree go up in a 20-foot pillar of flame. Within a few seconds it turned to a wind-tilted column of black smoke. A large area was a smoking carpet of black earth. We met Curt Arthur, Fire Chief of the Milesville Volunteer Fire Department. It was courteously understood that it was "his" fire, so he was the head of the volunteers. Everyone knew what to do, as was evidenced by the big trucks already working at the front line, but group effort respectfully gives the local chief the coordination authority. Like Jack said, he and I were to do perimeter patrol.

I scrambled onto the back of the truck while Jack drove over the hot edge of an already burned area. We doused anything that might have generated a wind-carried ember to start a new fire. I was being broken in easy.

"We make sure the guys on the front don't have to come back to put out a new fire. They're busy enough," said Jack. Small embered sticks that used to be the trunks of trees still smoked. Cow patties hissed with steam when hit with water. "If that grass and hay south of us were to catch fire in this shifting wind, this one truck would never stop it," said Hansen. On the drive north, he and Jim had talked about grass fires that had swept under firetrucks so fast that the tires didn't even melt.

As many as 20 trucks from volunteer fire departments in Philip, Milesville, Dupree, Faith, Midland and Wall had responded. Ranchers from the area were there to help. Fear of wildfire had brought in all that volunteer manpower. The Dupree crew had to head out; it was being recalled to fight a fire back home. A Milesville truck had to be towed out; the wear and tear, and carrying all that water, had taken its toll.

I was never near the front line. The men on the trucks that were only minutes in front of mine had put out most of the fire. Still, I did feel the heat. The continually shifting wind brought thin smoke that made my throat itch. Gusts of hot wind would sting my eyes and leave grit on my face.

Truck after truck of firemen from the front line joined us on perimeter watch. The fire, which I did not see much of, was contained. By 5:00 p.m. Jack was told his truck might as well head for home. Bouman joined us again.

We took off our safety gear before heading to Philip. My jeans were soaked clear through. A glance in the mirror showed a forehead covered with dark gray soot. We took an encompassing look from a hilltop where a collapsible water tank had been set up. Smoke still oozed from the black ground that I was told was around 500 acres of land. Some trees and grassy spots inside the perimeter still stood unburned. A grader was turning up dirt to really secure the perimeter. The wind shifted again and I could feel the heat still radiating from the extinguished area that was about a half mile away.

In Philip, people had food waiting for whomever wanted it. I, like many others, headed home to get a family supper and a shower, not necessarily in that order. It was 5:45. The last returning firemen got back to Philip around 10:30 p.m., though several stayed behind so the fire wouldn't try to rekindle unchecked.

One flare-up did occur the next day. "We sent a couple of trucks up to the river because the embers flared up a little bit today, and we didn't want it going anywhere," Marty said the next day. Another flare-up over the weekend was quickly extinguished.

More than 30 wildfires were burning in western South Dakota by midday Thursday, July 13, fire officials said. The fires were started by more than 6,200 dry-lightning strikes, according to a count by satellite. They were aided by temperatures in the 90s, by winds up to 35 m.p.h., and by relative humidity below 20 percent.