Mix extremely dry weather conditions and high winds gusting to 50 miles per hour over a period of several days and add a tree falling on electrical wires sparking a wildland fire and you have the Legion Lake Fire in Custer State Park. The fire began Monday, Dec. 11, and was 95 percent contained this past Monday after burning an estimated 54,023 acres, or a little over 84 square miles.
Over 200 state, federal and volunteer firefighters did a stellar job in extremely difficult cold and windy conditions to bring the blaze under control with no loss of human or animal life. Thankfully, firefighters were able to backburn around the historic State Game Lodge and Blue Bell Lodge structures to protect them from the rapidly moving wildfire last week.
The blaze is the third-largest fire in recorded wildfire history in the Black Hills with 33,000 acres alone burned in the 71,000-acre state park. The largest Black Hills fire was the Jasper Fire in late August 2000 which burned 83,508 acres, almost all on Black Hills National Forest land. If Jasper is any indication, Custer State Park will recover and green up nicely by the time tourism season rolls around next year.
The two fires were different in that Jasper was a crown fire with flames pushed by high winds racing through the treetops. It started on a Friday afternoon about 12 miles west of Custer by an individual lighting a fire after a roadside stop and jumped Highway 16 to the south threatening Jewel Cave buildings. The following Saturday the wind came up and switched to the north, burning 58,000 acres in a single day on National Forest land. Remarkably, no homes were burned.
The Legion Lake fire burned mostly grasslands along with a pumphouse and some bridges in the Wildlife Loop area of the park which remains closed to the public. The bridges that burned were timber trestle ones that will have to be checked out and repaired, if necessary. The only reported losses besides a lot of timber in the Jasper Fire were two outbuildings.
While this year-end fire was the largest by far in Custer County in 2017, it was not the only fire. March 8 the White Tail Fire was reported on private property off White Tail Road and Lower French Creek Road after a tree fell on a power line. It lasted for two days and burned 249 acres.
In an Aug. 2 Chronicle column by Mike Carter, Custer County Office of Emergency Services director, a high fire danger warning was issued in spite of the fact that rain had fallen previously for four days. Late that same month the Elk Run Fire was reported west of Highway 89 near Argyle. It was caused by lightning and burned 225 acres in three days.
In September the Rankin Fire caused by lightning burned 2,000 acres in Wind Cave National Park. That same month the Beaver Fire 11 miles southeast of Custer burned 400 acres. It was another lightning-caused fire.
Besides firefighters, we can thank the Almighty for finally calming the winds and causing some welcome white moisture to fall in the area of the Legion Lake Fire.
Thanks to all who had a hand in helping to put out this dangerous fire. It was a job well done under extremely difficult conditions.