Legion Lake Fire third largest in modern history

By Jacy Glazier

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The Legion Lake Fire is now being recorded as the third largest wildfire in Black Hills modern history with the total damage at 54,023 acres.

In the first hours of the fire it was reported the cause was human-related, but after further investigation, the official cause of the fire is being attributed to a power line knocked over by a tree in the area of Wilson’s Corner, one mile northwest of Legion Lake in Custer State Park.

The fire was reported at 7:34 a.m. Monday, Dec. 11, to the Custer Volunteer Fire Department and Custer Engine Two and Tender Six were released from the Bug Fire north of town to respond to the Legion Lake Fire. Jay Wickham from Custer State Park arrived on scene and reported that the fire was already 10-30 acres and growing.

“With the number of structures threatened, it was decided to also have Custer Engine Four and Brush Three respond to assist,” said fire chief, Joel Behlings.

The fire moved south and east along Centennial Trail toward the STAR Academy East Campus and Badger Hole. The leading edge of the fire then crossed Heddy Draw where it burned on both sides of Barnes Canyon Road.

This put the State Game Lodge, Blue Bell Lodge area and other facilities under an immediate threat. Heavy air tankers, helicopters and additional hand crews were ordered to assist the 200 firefighters already on scene.

“Early on in the fire, mutual aid was requested from Argyle Volunteer Fire Department, Highlands Volunteer Fire Department and Pringle Volunteer Fire Department. Jerome Harvey, Pennington County fire administrator, was also notified and resources were dispatched from Pennington County. Custer County Sheriff’s Office, Custer County Office of Emergency Services and Custer County Search and Rescue also responded,” said Behlings. “I know there were numerous other fire departments that responded, including Sturgis VFD, Sioux Falls Fire Department, Tea Fire Department, Weston County, Wyo., and Laramie County, Wyo., to name a few.”

By Monday evening the fire was holding at around 2,500 acres with zero percent containment and grew 500 acres overnight, which brought it to a type two fire with Rocky Mountain Team Blue put in command. By Tuesday afternoon, windy weather helped increase the fire another thousand acres, bringing the number up to 4,000 acres.

Tuesday evening fire activity greatly increased due to the high wind gusts, and evacuation orders were issued for residents living east of the park and west of Hwy. 79 from LH Road to Buffalo Gap which included the towns of Fairburn and Buffalo Gap. Highway 79 was also closed from Maverick Junction to Hermosa along with Highway 16A and Highway 87 south.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) authorized the use of federal funds to help with the costs of the fire. At that time, 175 homes were under mandatory evacuation orders, 15 roads were threatened and 25 bridges were either lost or threatened. The fire caused substantial damage to three watersheds and other park infrastructure. The authorization makes FEMA funding available to 75 percent of the state’s eligible firefighting costs.

By Wednesday morning, the fire had jumped Wildlife Loop Road and grew an estimated 31,000 acres overnight, with the fire only seven percent contained.

Hermosa School suspended classes Wednesday until further notice due to part of Hwy. 79, which led to the school, was closed Tuesday night. In Fairburn, mail delivery was suspended.

By Wednesday evening, mapping put the Legion Lake Fire at 47,312 acres and 10 percent containment. Heavy air tankers and continued burnout operations helped bring the fire to 50 percent containment by Thursday morning.

Evacuation orders were lifted, but all areas of Wind Cave National Park, with the exception of Highway 385 and Highway 87, Beaver Creek Road and associated turnouts and the immediate area around the visitor center, were closed to the public, as was Custer State Park.

By Thursday night, the fire remained at 50 percent containment but grew in size to 53,875 acres. Mop-up efforts and firefighter patrols continued into the weekend and by Saturday,  Rocky Mountain Team Blue transferred command back to a local type three organization.

Snow over the weekend helped to bring containment up to 95 percent by Monday, and more accurate mapping brought the acreage to the final number of 54,023.

As of press time Tuesday, containment lines continued to hold and minimal fire behavior allowed firefighters to carry on with mop up and patrol efforts. Resources will be focused on securing containment lines east of the park and west of Downen Road.

Custer State Park is now open.

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