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Notes from a Western Life
Ranging Far and Wide on the High Plains and Beyond
Linda M. Hasselstrom's Blog

Lightning, Fire and Neighbors

Linda with large, round hay bales of the size that burned in the night.
. . .
The usual June afternoon thunderstorm struck around 7pm on June 25, more violently than many storms, whipping rain at us from the southwest, pounding my raised bed tomatoes down, even driving rain through the siding to drip down the basement door. Lightning was frequent and close, slamming the hillsides and splitting the air in all directions. A few small shards of hail fell, but nothing like the baseball-sized hail we heard had pounded Rapid City the night before. When we surveyed the rain gauges around 9pm after most of the storm had passed, we found .60 of rain.

Just before we went to sleep, we thought we smelled smoke. As usual after such a storm, I turned out the lights and went to the deck, where I looked in all directions for any sign of flame. I looked mostly at the buildings I could see-- Homestead House and its barn and other buildings, at a shed in the pasture, and in the direction of the various hay yards where piles of round bales wait for winter use. I particularly looked toward the field that had been hayed that afternoon, thinking that lightning might have struck one of the round bales of hay lying in the field.

But we weren’t really worried. "Too wet to burn," we said, because the pastures are full of green grass.

We’d both spent busy days. Jerry mowed around our buildings in the morning while I worked with other Hermosa Arts and History Association volunteers sweeping and rearranging furniture and display cases on both floors of a massive old building in Hermosa. (Another story: for ten years, members of the association have been renovating the building, which will serve as a museum and gathering place for the community.)

In the afternoon, we went to the Great Plains Native Plant Society open house at the Claude A. Barr botanic garden in my front pasture. With the help of a botanist, we walked through the grass, looking at the native plants marked earlier by Cindy Reed, GPNPS leader. And we found one plant new to most of us, Fame flower, a succulent so tiny that you’re only likely to see it if you’re on hands and knees with a magnifying glass handy.

But Jerry and I were both awake about 3am with aching sinuses from the change of weather, when the dogs suddenly started barking and ran to the basement. I went to the living room and could see a light by the basement door. Just then a voice spoke from the deck outside the living room, a neighbor saying, "Linda, there’s a fire." The time was 3:15.

Let me be clear about what my neighbor, Bill, had done with that simple statement. He had awakened about 2:30 and smelled smoke. He got up, looked around his house, and determined that the smoke was coming from the east, the direction of my house. He got dressed, got his wife up and dressed, got in his pickup and drove down his ranch road toward the highway. When he topped a hill, he could see the fire and knew it was on my property, a mile or so east of my house. He guessed it was a shed or hay bales, so that with the wet ground and grass, it was no threat to anyone’s home-- but property was burning. Unable to reach us by telephone (our cell phones were off), he drove the muddy road to my house to be sure that I would know about the fire. Neighborliness is not simply living next door to someone.

I yelled for Jerry, yanked the door open, and could see flames flickering east of us, but couldn’t tell if they were in a hay yard or in the cattle shed that stands on the other side of the railroad tracks.

I called my lessee, Rick, and we decided against calling the fire department. We figured the fire was in a haystack and no amount of water can put out such a fire. Jerry and I grabbed shovels and tools, and headed east, while Rick got on his tractor and headed toward the fire from his house to the north.

Before we got far, a fire unit from the Hermosa volunteer fire department joined us, and we wallowed through the muddy field and pasture roads until we could see that the fire was burning bales near the end of a long collection of them on the east side of the railroad tracks and on the other side of a long gully fully of water. In the dark, unfamiliar with the terrain, neither of us could figure out how to get across the gully without getting stuck. When Rick arrived with his tractor, Jerry and I followed him to a crossing. The fire truck left. With Jerry’s help, Rick laid down the barbed wire of the fence.

Rick's tractor is fitted with a grapple fork, like a large hand. He drove this into the yard and started moving hay bales that hadn’t yet started burning. Each bale weighs about 900 pounds and on some trips he moved two at a time, stacking them away from the fire. Eventually he’d isolated about 10 burning bales in the center of the hay yard.

By that time, a fire unit from Fairburn had arrived, not knowing the Hermosa truck was gone. Rick began driving the tractor to the burning bales, grabbing one at a time, and backing out onto open ground, where he’d scatter the burning bale as quickly as possible. Then he’d go back for another.

With the neighbor who had arrived with the fire truck, we started using our shovels to break up the burning bales so they’d burn faster. Each time Rick dragged a bale away from the burning pile, he’d turn and drive through the bales he’d brought out earlier, breaking them up as the smoke swirled around the tractor. He had to keep moving fast so the hoses on the tractor’s hydraulic system wouldn’t burn. We knew he couldn’t see much through the rolling yellow smoke, so we stayed well out of his way.

The tractor roared back and forth, bouncing flaming bales in all directions. Each time he drove through a burning pile of hay, the speed of his passage sucked the smoke after him so it looked as if the back of the tractor was on fire. Whenever he stopped, he dug dry hay out of spots where it had been trapped on the tractor so it wouldn’t start burning.

Gradually we got the bales broken down. Each time a fire died down, one of us would break up the unburned parts of the bale with a shovel to let air into it, and it would explode into flame again.

I became aware that the smoke smelled just like drying hay: sweet, not smoky at all. During breaks, we leaned on our tools and exchanged neighborhood news and gossip, and reminisced about previous fires we’ve fought.

All our area fire departments are now dispatched by a call to 911, but most are still volunteer forces, so neighbors are always helping neighbors. In addition, anyone who finds out about a fire in the area jumps in a truck and comes to help.

While we were working on this fire, one of the men got a call from a neighbor who had been called by another neighbor who was on his way to work in Rapid City, saw the fire, assumed (correctly) that it had been reported to fire officials by someone, but called to let them know the fire existed. The neighbor, knowing whose place the fire was likely to be on, called one of the men working the fire to see if they had it under control or needed more help.

Meanwhile, a pin started to slip out of Rick’s grapple, which would have crippled the tractor for further use. All three men dug in their tool boxes and finally got that fixed. Rick also called his son to bring pitchforks, to make it easier to break up the hay.

Finally the Fairburn truck left, and we beat down a few more pieces of hay and headed for home at 8am.

Rick collected a harrow and dragged it over the remaining burning hay, breaking it up so it would burn completely, and also worked the burned hay into the wet green grass. His son fixed the hay yard fence so the cattle couldn’t get into the good hay, and Rick used the grapple bucket to dump a few loads of water from the nearby gully.

By 10am the fire was out, but the wind has come up, so we’ll be watching during the day to be sure it doesn’t flare up in a new spot.

No doubt lightning struck the bales during the storm early in the evening, and the fire smoldered through the storm, including the half-inch of rain, until it got enough strength to burst into open flame. We still don’t know who called the fire department-– perhaps someone from one of the subdivisions high on the hills to the west, or perhaps a passerby on the highway. But we’re grateful.

I was just thinking yesterday that it’s time to write my usual summer checks to the volunteer fire departments in the area. Once again neighbors, both on the fire trucks and off, have saved each other.

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For more information:
The Great Plains Garden Page on this website
Great Plains Native Plant Society website

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