EDGEMONT, S.D. Let me tell you about Edgemont.
It is the closest town to the massive wildfire where four Air National Guard airmen based in Charlotte died a week ago dumping fire retardant.
I got there on the Fourth of July. Main Street was vacant. I was reading fire advisories posted on the window of the city hall when Tami Habeck, the town’s finance officer, stopped and got out of her car.
“You look sort of lost. Can I help you?” she said.
People out here never got the memo on Stranger Danger. They are friendly beyond measure, even to newspaper reporters.
She directed me to the Fall River County Fairgrounds a few blocks away. It is there a brigade of nearly 400 firefighters drawn from as far away as Michigan are based to battle the White Draw Fire, which has consumed 9,000 acres of parched prairie and pine and imperiled Craven Canyon.
I wasn’t there long when Edgemont Mayor Jim Turner pulled in. He’d already heard I was in his town of nearly 800, where news travels fast.
He said he’d already sent a letter to the Observer hoping it would be printed to express condolences on behalf of the citizens of Edgemont for the fallen airmen from the 145th Airlift Wing of the N.C. National Guard.
“Please tell people back there how terribly sorry we all are,” he said. “It was a heroic act for those guys for a community and people they don’t even know.”
Edgemont squats on desolate, rolling prairie in the foothills of the fabled Black Hills, which draw their name from the Indians, who called it the land of shadows.
A vast sea of prairie grass wiggles in the wind to the horizon, freckled by splotches of pine that look black from a distance.
Edgemont, tucked in the southwestern corner of the state not far from the Wyoming border, was incorporated as a railroad town in 1895, and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe is still a force here. It has been through busts and booms and a group is interested in reviving uranium mining, which flourished in the 1960s.
Edgemont gets an average of 16 inches of rain annually. By comparison, Charlotte harvests a bounty of nearly 45. It was 99 degrees on Independence Day in Edgemont as fire crews attacked the blaze in steep, rattlesnake terrain with bulldozers, aircraft and hand tools, and the humidity was a mere 11 percent.
That’s why wildfires, which consume the grass ranchers depend on for their livestock, are such a problem in the arid West.
Every summer, firefighters across the region fight these blazes. It is a tight-knit community of mostly lanky men whose skill and endurance are tested under extreme conditions.
Turner returned to the fairgrounds at daybreak Thursday with the camp’s firefighters and people from his town. They were there to salute the airmen of Charlotte’s 145th.
An Air Force chaplain led them in prayers. A bugler stood atop a fire truck and sounded “Taps.”
Afterward, the camp’s firefighters lined up to sign a banner of condolences to the families of the fallen and their colleagues in the 145th.
People in the service will tell you that 90 percent of the military is working to support the 10 percent at the tip of the spear. That takes muscle and the 145th flexes it with its fleet of powerful C-130 transports. Our Guardsmen routinely fly months-long missions to the world’s sketchiest neighborhoods.
Sgt. Josh Marlowe, recovering in a Rapid City hospital as one of the two survivors from the crash, had returned only in March from a mission to Afghanistan that began in November. He’d been on four others to war zones.
On the banner at the memorial service, the names of the fallen crewmen were listed:
Lt. Col. Paul Mikeal of Mooresville, Senior Master Sgt. Robert Cannon of Charlotte, Maj. Joe McCormick of Belmont and Maj. Ryan Scott David of Boone.
It was handed over to the U.S. Forest Service, then given to the Air Force with the understanding it would be delivered to the 145th, which is having a private memorial at its base this week.
None of the firefighters or townspeople at the service Thursday had ever met the airmen.
So let me tell you about Edgemont.
It’s a place where the mayor makes a special trip on a hot holiday afternoon to ensure this message would be conveyed to all of Charlotte about its airmen:
“They will never be forgotten.”