EDGEMONT, S.D. -- Six strangers who fell from the sky were saluted Wednesday in this hardscrabble Black Hills town shrouded in smoke from a massive wildfire.
"These people don't even know us, but they're out here risking life and limb for us," Mayor Jim Turner said of the Charlotte-based crew of an Air National Guard C-130 that crashed Sunday while dumping fire retardant on the White Draw Fire.
"It was a heroic act for those guys for a community they don't even know. We'll never forget them," he said.
Four crew members were killed and two injured in the crash.
Edgemont lies in a part of the sparsely-populated Black Hills. Blond, desolate prairie runs in vast stretches, occasionally speckled by livestock and ranges of pine.
Population 750, Edgemont was incorporated in 1895 as a railroad town. Uranium was mined nearby in the '60s, but now the city in South Dakota's southwestern corner lives largely off agriculture.
That industry is one of the key reasons a brigade of 382 people here are fighting the fire with aircraft, bulldozers and shovels. Scattered homesteads are menaced by the blaze, but it also imperils the grasslands that ranchers need to feed their livestock.
A stubborn fire
Extreme fire season usually doesn't start until mid-July, but this year it has arrived about a month early because of a drought so persistent that fireworks, campfires and even outdoor welding have been banned.
About 4 p.m. Friday, an RV caught fire near Edgemont and dry grasses near the road caught fire.
By Wednesday, it had spread to more than 8,000 acres. A second fire has also erupted nearby, but it is not as large.
Firefighters from as far away as Michigan poured in on Saturday to battle the White Draw Fire, one of many active in the arid West this summer.
It is a seasonal duty involving firefighters from more than a dozen federal, state and local agencies. Firefighters routinely see friends they've made on other deployments wherever they go and there is great kinship among them.
Timothy Norman of Duluth, Minn., is directing the fight against the White Draw Fire from a command post at the county fairgrounds. He has been opposing wildfires for 38 summers.
News of the C-130 crash and the deaths of four crewmen hit the camp hard, he said.
"I can't believe there was a single person here that this wasn't weighing heavily on their minds," he said.
Norman said the retardant -- called slurry, a mixture of water, fertilizer and red dye that coats the ground and repels fire for days -- dropped by the aircraft before the crash was instrumental in containing the blaze.
"Without that drop, we wouldn't have accomplished what we've done so far," he said.
Retardant was being dumped by the C-130 not far from Craven Canyon, known locally for its ancient pictographs and rock carvings left by a civilization that pre-dated the Dakota Indians. Paintings show game animals and hunting parties and are possibly thousands of years old.
"There's a bizarre one there everyone calls 'the alien one' that looks like it came from outer space," said John Minium, a local photographer who snapped a picture of the C-130 on Sunday moments before it disappeared. He said the drawing seems to show a disc with three legs. Archaeologists have never figured out what it represents.
Fires are not uncommon in the region, but this week's blaze is unusually large and difficult to contain because of dry conditions and gusting winds, authorities say.
A firefighter was killed last summer and another severely burned in a smaller fire when winds turned and drove it toward them.
In Charlotte Wednesday, a moment of silence was observed for the plane's crew members before the Fourth of July fireworks show at Memorial Stadium.
"July 4 is about remembering the courage of people who put their lives on the line defending life, liberty and the property of others," said Moira Quinn of Charlotte Center City Partners. "That's essentially what they do every day." Staff writer Ely Portillo contributed to this report.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service