PIERRE, S.D. — The 2,250-acre fire that burned on Rapid City's doorstep last month and forced 500 persons from their homes likely started from embers in a landowner's burn pile of fallen timber — thought to have been extinguished days earlier — says a Colorado investigator's report.
However, the man who hired an employee to start the slash burn that the investigator blames for fueling the blaze dubbed the Schroeder Fire is, for now, being kept private by state authorities.
The 60-page report compiled by Englewood, Colo.-based fire investigator Todd J. Hedglin determined from burn scars and interviews with neighborhood witness who spotted the smoke, as well as the landowner upon whose property the blaze first ignited, that a slash pile believed to have been 100% out a week earlier led to the conflagration first reported on Monday, March 31.
In total, the Schroeder Fire destroyed over a dozen buildings, including one home, involved 150 personnel, and even drew South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem from Pierre during the legislature's final meeting day, called "Veto Day," to oversee the response.
According to the report, while the homeowner who hired an employee to start a slash pile burn — to devour timber fallen from a previous forest fire over 30 years earlier — maintained that a third party had started the fire, agents with the Pennington County Sheriff's Office were able to eliminate arson as a cause of the fire.
Other potential causes — ranging from cigarette smoke to glass reflection to lightning — were also ruled out by Hedglin.
"An escape from a debris/slash pile cannot be eliminated as the cause of the March 29, 2021, Schroeder Fire," wrote Hedglin, of IRIS Fire Investigations.
The report, which was released by South Dakota Wildland Fire and redacted the name of the property owner, noted that a homeowner had received a permit from state officials and legally notified local law enforcement of his slash burn earlier in March.
While the homeowner and employee monitored the slash pile for days, even after they'd believed the fires had subsided, Hedglin's report acknowledges that some escapes of embers in a controlled burn can remain lit "hours and even days" under cooled surfaces.
The report, which pointed to evaporating snow for exposing a fuel package, also noted wind gusts of nearly 70 miles-per-hour on March 29, the day of the fire, breathing oxygen into the blaze that moved east toward town.
In a news release on Tuesday, April 19, the Department of Public Safety, which as of this week, following a governmental reorganization of some departmental duties in the state, oversees Wildland Fire, announced no criminal charges will be filed by the Pennington County State's Attorney at this time.
Forum News Service also reached out to a Pennington County Sheriff's Office for information that led the department to rule out arson. A spokeswoman, however, noted the sheriff is currently out of town and will be available to provide answers later in the week.
Matching GPS coordinates with Pennington County property records, FNS determined the property where the fire originated to be owned by SR Living Trust. South Dakota law shields identity information on the trust.
On Wednesday, April 21, a Department of Public Safety spokesman told FNS that Marsy's Law had been invoked by an individual impacted by the fire and requested names included in an earlier-disseminated draft of the report not be made public.
FNS will provide an update when more information becomes available.
Marsy's Law is a constitutional amendment passed by South Dakota voters in 2016 to support victims' rights and can be invoked by a victim to "prevent the disclosure to the public... of information or records that could be used to locate or harass the victim or the victim's family," according to the South Dakota Attorney General's website.