Andy Taylor doesn’t have to check the U.S. Drought Monitor to know how dry it is in South Dakota. His crew of aerial firefighters has been stationed in the state much longer than in past years. And there’s a reason for that.
“Normally the fire season … traditionally can start at the end of July and by the middle of September we are getting some precipitation. It is about a 60-70 day fire season,” Taylor said.
This year however, South Dakota’s fire season essentially started in March and aside from a brief reprieve in June has continued since then, he said.
As of last week, 65.5 percent of the continuous United States was in some form of drought, according to the Associated Press. The U.S. Drought Monitor map shows about 75 percent of South Dakota in severe, extreme or exceptional drought. Annual precipitation is 5-7 inches below average in many places, the Associated Press says.
Taylor is the owner of New Frontier Aviation, an aerial firefighting company that has a contract with the South Dakota and other states and agencies to battle fires when needed.
The company was incorporated in 1991 and has held contracts with South Dakota for about half a dozen years, Taylor said.
His airplanes, which are essentially the same as those used for crop dusting, drop hundreds of gallons of chemicals on and around fires. Some of the chemicals are fire retardant, while others are meant to be dropped directly on the fire.
Taylor said the drought is particularly bad in South Dakota, which is why he has a third of his firefighting airplanes in the state to respond as needed. As of last week, Taylor had planes stationed in Pierre, Hot Springs, Mobridge and one on its way to Lemmon. In addition, for each plane there is an accompanying support vehicle that will go out to the fire as well.
At each of the locations a two-person crew – a pilot and support vehicle driver – standby to be called on at a moment’s notice. Taylor said the crews are dispatched as needed to fire at the request of the state. He said crews are ready to load up and be in the air in 15 minutes.
He said the last comparable fire season he can remember was in 2006.
“We’ve had a lot more fires this year than we have in the past,” he said.
Just last week, the plane stationed in Hot Springs battled a fire near Rapid City and fairly recently one the planes helped on a fire near Mobridge and the fire season doesn’t look to temper anytime soon.