RAPID CITY — What started out as a controlled burn quickly escalated into an out-of-control blaze in Rapid City, resulting in thousands of dollars worth of damage Saturday afternoon
Edie Evans is one of at least two affected residents, having lost her garden shed, workshop and garage in the blaze.
The 85-year-old revealed she had little concern Saturday morning when she witnessed the Rapid City Fire Department start a controlled burn north of her house, since that fire had largely been put out before noon.
However, at approximately 12:30 p.m., Evans said weather conditions became increasingly windy, which carried some flaming embers hundreds of yards into an empty pond full of dry bulrushes.
"And then, all of a sudden, ‘poof,’ the bulrushes started catching on fire north of my place, and blown by the wind (the flames were) heading straight for my house," she said on Sunday morning. "So I just grabbed my phone, called 911, grabbed my car keys and got the heck out of there."
Evans’ son, Lloyd, lives nearby and tried his best to rescue some of the more expensive equipment stored in his mother’s garage, including two golf carts and a side-by-side.
The structure, alongside a connected workshop and garden shed, was consumed by fire shortly thereafter.
"I lost an awful lot," Evans said. "I lost my boat, canoe, kayak, motors, lawnmower, rototiller, a miter saw, a table saw … too many things to list."
A similar fate befell Evans’ neighbour, Peter Cronkrite, who upon returning home from receiving his COVID-19 vaccine watched helplessly as the flames destroyed his garage.
"There were three boats in there," he said Sunday afternoon. "Now there’s nothing left. I can’t believe that."
There were no reported injuries as a result of Saturday’s fire.
Despite all this destruction, Evans does not blame the Rapid City Fire Department for what took place, and said they did everything they could to help get the blaze under control.
Lloyd believes the Rural Municipality of Oakview is more to blame, and that their sluggish response to fixing the community’s water systems is putting everyone at risk.
The Rapid City dam has been out of commission since it got hit by massive rainstorms last June, causing the reservoir fed by the Little Saskatchewan River that runs through town to dry up alongside other nearby bodies of water.
Because of this, the pond that borders the north side of Evans’ house was bone dry on Saturday afternoon, making it extremely vulnerable to embers.
"In my personal opinion, that’s one of the major contributing factors (to the fire)," Lloyd said. "Because there was no water in the area where the bulrushes were they were tinder dry and it went up like a matchstick."
Another major issue is the community’s fire hydrants.
Depending on who you talk to, these hydrants are either unreliable or completely non-functional, which may have hampered the local fire department’s ability to respond to Saturday’s fire.
"They ran out of water," Cronkite said. "There’s not one fire hydrant that works in this town. So, why’s that? They push a water line across here and put a hydrant in the park, but it’s not charged up."
Rapid City and District Wildlife Association secretary-treasurer Bob Christie told the Sun non-functioning fire hydrants have been an issue in the community for years now, which has forced the fire department to rely on the Little Saskatchewan River to keep their tankers full.
"And now that there’s no river it’s pretty hard for them to fill up a water tank," he said. "They would have to go out of town to one of the municipal wells."
To Lloyd, this fire should be a wake-up call for the municipality to get the dam fixed as quickly as possible.
Even before Saturday, day-to-day life has been challenging enough for the people living north of the river, who used to rely on the community’s reservoir to supply their water.
But now that the reservoir has been out of commission as of June, these approximately 22 residents have had to make do with constantly refilling water tanks located outside their homes.
While this set-up has mostly been an inconvenience up until now, Lloyd said Saturday’s fire proves that the municipality’s mismanagement of local water systems has much more serious implications.
"If we would have had water and the water lines were charged up, we definitely would have been a lot better off and I think we would have saved some of the buildings," he said. "I’m very upset and very disappointed in our RM and I’m very, very discouraged with them."
RM of Oakview Reeve Bruce Fortune told the Sun he is organizing a meeting with the municipality on Monday to discuss Saturday’s fire and the possibility of establishing a fire ban in the area.
He declined to comment on the functionality of Rapid City’s fire hydrants.
Manitoba Infrastructure told the Sun in January it will take a minimum of two years to fix the Rapid City dam, as the remaining components of the patchwork structure need to be completely torn out and replaced.