Custer State Park visitor services program manager Kobee Stalder has not been on the job very long in his new position. If you had told him he would be helping disseminate information about a nearly 54,000-acre fire burning in the park two week before Christmas, he probably wouldn’t have believed you.
“That’s one thing you really don’t expect to do in the middle of December,” Stalder said with a laugh.
Such was the case last week, however, as the Legion Lake Fire, now confirmed as the third-largest fire in modern Black Hills history, consumed 53,023 acres of land — 33,000 in Custer State Park.
The fire, which started during the early morning hours of Dec. 11 by a downed power line, thanks to strong winds, exploded by 30,000 acres overnight Dec. 12, once again thanks to wind gusts that pushed 60 mph and extremely dry fuels due to a lack of precipitation this fall.
“It was a perfect storm happening,” Stalder said. “We had high winds, the downed power lines caused a spark and we had a lot of dry fire fuel for it to burn. Everything aligned to make it a huge fire.”
The fire burned 84 square miles of state, private and federal land after the power line fell in the area of Wilson’s Corner one mile northeast of Legion Lake in Custer State Park. The fire started around 7:30 a.m. and burned from Legion Lake southeast down Lame Johnny Road out to Hwy. 79, west to the Blue Bell Lodge area near Hwy. 87 and further southeast into Wind Cave National Park and nearly down to 7-11 Road in southern Custer County.
Stalder said only one structure — a shuttered pump house near Wilson’s Corner — was lost in the fire. However, numerous structures were threatened, including the State Game Lodge, Blue Bell Lodge, the Wildlife Visitor Center, Badger Hole, French Creek Horse Camp, former STAR Academy east campus and the buffalo corrals as the fire moved down Wildlife Loop Road, where a bridge was lost.
At Wind Cave National Park, 6,966 acres burned east of National Park Service Road 5. Park chief of interpretation Tom Farrell said the park did not have any structures damaged or wildlife affected, but park roads 5 and 6 and the backscountry at the park are closed until park staff can evaluate the effects on the roads and trails.
Custer State Park was closed due to the fire, but on Monday morning officials began allowing people to once again navigate Hwys. 16 and 87 through the park. Roads inside the park remain closed as of press time as park officials assess damage. Closed roads will be marked by barricades.
The Custer State Park Visitor Center reopened Monday. The Festival of Trees event officially began that day, running through Jan. 1. All trails and roads in the Sylvan Lake area remain open, as well as Iron Mountain Road.
“A lot of gravel roads will be closed until we get them cleared off to make sure they’re safe for visitors,” Stalder said.
Many of the park staff are qualified firefighters who helped tamp down the blaze before they could set their sights on assessing damage, Stalder said.
Some of that damage is known, however. Because of the lost bridge, Wildlife Loop Road is impassable and closed. One of the earliest priorities was fixing the fence on the east boundary of the park so animals returning to that area after leaving it during the fire do not escape park boundaries.
Park staff was able to locate a large share of its bison herd and it appears to have made it out of the fire none the worse for wear. The fire consumed a large portion of the grazing area for the buffalo and park officials are working to determine how best to address that issue.
In addition, one of the park’s elk herds has been located, while another is missing. The antelope herd and most of the deer are also OK. The same is true for the prairie dog town the fire swept over, as they rode the fire out in their burrows.
Some of the nine burros in Custer State Park were initially thought to have perished in the fire, but were found over the weekend, along with the original six burros found tucked into the southwest corner of the park near Movie Draw. They were given food and water immediately and have been tended to by a veterinarian, as some suffered burns.
The fire burned through some of the hiking trails in the park, which will remain closed. Those areas include Lover’s Leap, the Prairie Trail, Centennial Trail near Badger’s Hole and the French Creek Natural Area Trail. There is no timetable for when the trails will be reopened, Stalder said, as assuring visitor safety is paramount.
One positive, if one can be taken from such a fire, is that the fire was low to the ground, meaning few trees were burned top to bottom. The fire took away some of the dead trees and overgrowth in areas, so if some precipitation is received this winter, the burned areas will thrive come summer.
“Once spring hits, everything is going to be pretty green,” Stalder said. “It will almost look like a wildfire didn’t come through.”
Assessment is the name of the game for now, as park staff works to learn all the damage created by the fire and how best to remedy it. Stalder said everything in the park should be up and running well before the summer tourism season begins, but patience will be needed as repairs begin.
“You think 71,000 acres (the size of Custer State Park) is not a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, but when you have that much road and land to cover and somewhat limited resources, it’s going to take us a while to figure out what the fire affected.”