Lightning strike causes fire in cottonwood trees off Old Belle Road

July 26, 2016

SPEARFISH — Unique problems call for unique solutions, and Friday, after receiving a report around 3:45 p.m. about a tree struck by lightning off of Creekside Loop off the Old Belle Road north of Spearfish, the Spearfish Fire Department enlisted the help of Bennett Branch Busters tree service, out of Sturgis, to assist with what they found.

“It looked like a fire in a chimney,” Spearfish Fire Department Chief Mark Sachara said, describing the two old, hollow cottonwood trees, each about five feet in diameter, that were on fire when the three brush trucks and one water tender arrived. “It was pretty raging.”

Fortunately, the area had received rain recently, Sachara said, which limited the fire to the trees. It had not spread to the nearby round hay bales, which a neighbor began to move before the property owner, Eric Jennings, returned, at which point he began moving bales and keeping debris clear from the bottom of the trees.

While no one at the scene was comfortable trying to fell the trees from the ground, Sachara, who has previous experience in forestry, decided to call in experts from a tree management service, and Bennett Branch Busters answered that call.

Robert Bungert, who has 30 years of experience in the business, had the job of cutting the branches from the truck bucket, which reaches 65 feet in the air. He said that while he’s responded to calls in the middle of the night regarding power poles or trees struck by lightning, he’s “Never (seen) one that was on fire from the bottom up — I’ve done some that were on fire up on top … this was the first one like that.”

Bungert said it was probably the most challenging thing he’s done in this area in the last couple of years. He took the hose from the fire truck up in the bucket several times to put the fire out before he could make cuts on the tree.

“He (Bungert) got to be a firefighter, and he certainly helped out,” Sachara said, describing the “long, very involved scene.” The department was on scene for about six hours, leaving the scene about 10 p.m. once the fire was knocked down.

Bungert said that under normal circumstances, it would have taken about an hour and a half to the do the work he completed on the trees — but since they were on fire, it more than tripled the time needed to put the flames out and cool the tree before he could make cuts. Bungert worked for about five hours at the scene, and he guessed that the taller of the trees was above 90 feet in height.

“I was stretched completely up, and it was still 30-40 feet of tree above me,” he said, adding that overall, “It went well — I’m still alive.”

“It was really amazing to see it,” Sachara added.

Crews from the Forest Service and state forestry division also responded to the call, ready to assist if the fire reached the ground and turned into a grassfire, but the seven Spearfish Fire Department firefighters were able to keep the fire contained to the trees, hosing down the branches and sections of tree trunks as Bungert cut them down.

“The rain was just a blessing because if it would not have rained, I’m quite sure these people would have lost a lot of stuff, including some equipment,” Sachara said.

In addition, the Spearfish Fire Department responded to a call at about 2:57 p.m. Sunday in regards to a hiker who had slipped and broken his ankle about a mile into the Devils Bathtub trail in Spearfish Canyon. Four firefighters from the department, along with Spearfish Emergency Ambulance Service personnel, were able to get the man, in his mid-30s, off of the trail and transport him to Spearfish Regional Hospital.

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