Dry Creek Fire | Okaton, SD | 3.29.21
© Cristen J. Roghair, All Rights Reserved | http://cristenjoyphotography.com

Dry Creek Fire | Okaton, SD | 3.29.21

That Day

Words can not accurately express the shear panic of billowing smoke and fire thundering in the direction of your home. A prairie fire and 65+ mph gusts of wind are a deadly mix.

My husband, Marty, received a call of fire near our property where his parents live and where he grew up. He sped that direction, trying to call them but the electricity was out. He was able to reach them, urging them to prepare for evacuation.

Living in open landscape, you can see smoke for many miles. During times of dry seasons, such as the prairie is currently in is always a time of awareness to what can happen in a second. Of all the prairie fires I’ve witnessed from a distance in our corner of the globe, I have never seen such threatening sights as March 29th, 2021.

I hadn’t heard a word from Marty since his call and about 30 minutes later we decided to evacuate. From our hilltop ranch home, the thundering smoke, evidence of fire below, was headed straight for our house. I estimated it was about five miles away.

With the unpredictability of the fire’s travel and the wind speed strength I had no idea how the fire direction would change and how fast it would descend upon us. I didn’t want to assume anything with this fire.

What do you choose to take in a moments notice with the added anxiety of your husband gone in the midst of the fire and two kids who are traumatized? My sister-in-law, a few hundred miles away with fears for her parents and childhood home, gave a few helpful suggestions.

We loaded our most precious treasures as fast as we could (I will now have an evacuation list, just in case). I called my dad in Illinois to pray for us, praying for the Lord’s mercy. My daughter was crying and praying out loud and said, “My heart is beating so fast!” We stopped, took deep breaths and prayed.

The last treasure I grabbed was an original painting gifted by a dear group of friends. I looked around my home, asking the Lord to be able to return to the same condition.

Pastor Jim and Lynette arrived shortly before we left. They drove our old pickup with dogs and we all headed west to my brother-in-laws, out of the line of the fire.

The fire heading south, toward I-90.

With the kids distracted playing with cousins, I left to track the fire’s travel from a safe hill west of Okaton.

Fire departments from the surrounding communities rushed to aide. I-90 was shut down, as well as our highway traveling between Okaton and Murdo.

The fire did not reach our house and jumped I-90 a few miles east from us, as well as tunneling through the railroad bridge. It then jumped our highway and was stopped a mile or so south. Totaling about nine miles of destruction and over 9,000 acres of farm and grassland. My husband and I lost about 1,400 acres of grazing land, both what we own and lease. We also lost 144 of our choicest hay bales to feed the cows during calving season.

One of the pastures we lease for summer grazing.

While I was evacuating and doing my best to keep the kids safe, Marty was in the midst of the fire as it surrounded his parents place. He and his brother were trying to save the yearling heifers, who would be our replacements next spring. They got them out of the corrals and a few other cows that were there out to a larger pasture. The fire was surrounding them.

Marty could see the smoke going through Hanson Creek, where our herd was. He thought we’d lost them. My mother-in-law, watching from afar, could see smoke surrounding her home and believed it to be gone.

Farm ground and prairie destroyed. Some farmers disked their field creating ridges to help keep the loose dirt from blowing too far and lose the precious top soil.

When the earth totters, and all its inhabitants, it is I who keep steady its pillars.

-Psalm 75:3

The Aftermath

The fire did not destroy a single occupied building, though it came right behind our sheds and across the driveway from my in-laws home. The cows were protected in a strip of pasture with fire on both sides of them. There is no other explainable means than the Lord’s mercy.

Marty spent the night, with very little sleep, at his parents keeping an eye on hot spots and putting out sparks. The fire department kept their night vigil across the burn site keeping watchful eyes on what could reignite, especially since the wind had not let up. They continued through the next few days as well.

Words can not truly express how grateful I am for these volunteer firefighters, putting their lives at risk and their families in anxiety.

I’m also so thankful for our local electric coop, busy the following day putting in many, many new poles. (Updated note-they were out that very day replacing poles and restoring power in horrible smoke, ash, and dusty conditions as they fought the wind.) The lineman have had a long and busy March with the snow storm we had early that month and power out in a large region for long periods of time.

In a small community, the volunteer fire fighters, ambulance crew, sheriff department, electric coop and the water company aren’t just workers I pay or come to my rescue. They are people I went to high school with, neighbors, members of the community I’ve known a long time. They’re family. Their support takes on more meaning to me, a girl who spent a lot of her time in urban areas where I didn’t know people in this capacity. They are people whose roots run deep in this community.

The Redemption

A week later after the fire, I spent the evening in the pasture where the cows had been. It was the most peaceful moments of the previous week.

Where I’m standing in this photo is all burned to the bottom of the hill. Across the creek is also burned. Our 232 cows where in the strip of grassland in the middle.

Why was it so peaceful? The grass is already coming back!

I marveled at the redemptive nature of prairie grass. The roots run deep which means that though above ground they are destroyed, there is still life beneath the surface.

The wildlife is still there, as evidence from pheasant tracks in the ash and dirt.
Deer scamper along the returning grass and cow pies.
Our neighbors wheat field, planted in the fall, is also showing promise.

We all suffer tragedies and loss in varying degrees. They should not be compared to each other for we are all different and have different journeys and experiences in life.

I can say now, looking back on numerous experiences that “God only gives us the grace for the situations in which we are called.”*

All week long these words to Audrey Assad’s Good to Me have been running through my mind:

When I’m bowed down with sorrow | I will lift up Your name | And the foxes in the vineyard | Will not steal my joy | Because You are good to me, good to me | You are good to me, good to me | You are good to me

© Cristen J. Roghair, All Rights Reserved | http://cristenjoyphotography.com

*Cameron Cole, Therefore I Have Hope

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. Evelyn Fay

    Thank you for posting this. We who live far away have no idea of the speed of destruction of a prairie fire. I am so glad you and yours are safe.

  2. Kathy

    You’re such a good writer. I could feel myself being right there with you, throughout the whole thing…and it brings tears to my eyes. Tears for all of the struggles we go through. Tears for our lack of faith at times and at the same time, tears of joy and hope; seeing Gods love, mercy and grace in action. He is far greater than we can fathom. 💛

    1. Cristen

      Oh, Kathy. Yes, He is good. Always. 🙂

  3. Teresa

    Oh goodness Cristen, that sounds so stressful and frightening. I’m so glad that you and your family are safe! ❤️

  4. Tom Steckel

    Cristen,

    You did a marvelous job describing the terrible destruction wrought by the March 29 prairie fire. I can’t imagine facing the prospect of losing your home and cattle , your very sustenance, to the force of nature. Thanks to God for protecting you and your family and cattle from this catastrophe. The courage and selflessness displayed by the volunteer firefighters and other first responders in these events is truly a testament to the faith, perserverance and resilience of the good people of South Dakota. Please be safe!

    1. Cristen

      Agreed, Tom! Thanks be to God! 🙂 I believe there were at least 9 communities represented in the volunteer fire departments. Such incredible people willing to aide in the fire!

  5. Jim Karg

    I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and photos.

    “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
    His mercies never come to an end;
    they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
    “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in Him.” Lamentations 3:22-24

    Grace to you in Christ again today!

    1. Cristen

      His steadfast love-seems to be a theme in my life. 🙂
      Thank you for being there when the Lord knew we needed you two!

  6. Dan

    So glad your family is all safe and Mel and Claire too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and many experiences during and after the terrible fire. Really makes it personal.

  7. Kate

    So glad you all made it through this safely Cristen. We kept our eyes on the fire with hopes that it would not reach you and our friends south. Wishing you and the land a quick, steady return (and some rain).

    1. Cristen

      Thanks, Kate! It’s amazing how the grass is coming back. We won’t be able to use the pastures until maybe this fall, pending on rain fall.

  8. Colin

    WOW!! Scary/exciting moments all rolled into one!! So glad to hear that all is well with you and your family, home, etc. Praise be to YHWH/God for protecting you and your family. My daughter is also out there as well and had her own evacuation bag packed and ready to go, just in case. Gods grace is very evident within your situation out there. Praise be to HIM for protecting you and your family

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