Light ‘er up!

Ron Burtz

This Saturday will mark a unique 10 year anniversary for Custer. Starting a decade ago, the Bark Beetle Blues steering committee, in cooperation with the Custer Area Arts Council, began holding annual observances to mark the devastation brought about by the Rocky Mountain pine beetle infestation which was raging at the time.  
Then, after a year long mourning period for the damage done by the beetles and every year since 2014 on a Saturday in January, people from around the Black Hills have been marching with torches up Pageant Hill to set fire to a mammoth wooden effigy of a pine beetle and cheer as it goes up in smoke.
Burning Beetle was created to help the Custer community and the Black Hills come to grips with the beetle pandemic. Last year, the event was disrupted by a pandemic of a different kind. The COVID-19 pandemic which began less than two months after the 2020 Burning Beetle observance, caused the annual afternoon talent show before the burning to go virtual and the bug crawl events afterward to be scaled back as well.
“If ever we’ve needed a way to come together safely and celebrate who we are as a community, it’s now,” said Hank Fridell, Burning Beetle organizer. “Custer is ready to light the beetle!”
That first beetle in 2014 was built by master carpenter Karl Svensson with the help of a few volunteers. Sversson, who had been a boat builder, used that expertise in the design and construction of the beetle. It had a plywood frame and was covered on the outside with thin and flexible strips of wood cut from beetle-killed trees.
“Karl has headed up the building of all nine of the beetles,” said Fridell. “Over the years we have made a number of small changes to the beetle, mostly to strengthen it and make it safer, but it is the same basic design.”
In recent years pyrotechnics have been added to the inside and around the rim of the bug to make the burning even more spectacular.
This year’s two-day event starts Friday, Jan. 14, at Art Expressions in Custer. Starting at 10 a.m., the Black Hills Raptor Center will have five to six birds of prey at the studio, where visitors can learn about the animals as well as conservation efforts.
Also throughout the day, visitors can watch as a number of artists create pieces of art which will be set ablaze the following night at the burning. There is also the opportunity for guests to make their own beetle-themed hats, which are encouraged to be worn during the event and thrown into the fire.
From 4-6 p.m., Art Expressions will host a reception with refreshments and treats provided.
The festivities continue at 3 p.m., Saturday when the popular variety show returns to the Custer Jr./Sr. High School Theatre, boasting a bevy of talent from across the Black Hills. The show — which is by donation-based entry — will entertain as well as educate on the history of the Burning Beetle event and the Mountain Pine Beetle. There will be the chance to purchase 2022 Burning Beetle memorabilia as well as copies of the “Burning Beetle: An Artistic Response to Environmental Change.”
The book, produced by the arts council, chronicles the event’s evolution over the past decade and has informational vignettes about the Mountain Pine Beetle destruction. It features photos from photographer Paul Horsted. Proceeds from the book sales go to the Custer Area Arts Council in support of Vigilance—the large sculpture at the corner of Crook and 4th streets—and future art endeavors.
Before the beetle is torched, the gas flame of Vigilance will be lit. The sculpture created by Jared “Cappie” Capp of Spearfish, was installed and dedicated last year. At 4 p.m. the Custer High School Cross Country team will light the Vigilance flame and carry it across town to  light the torches of awaiting revelers at the high school.
Those who have torch bearer tickets—as well as those who just want to march with the group—will meet at the Jr./Sr. High School parking lot. There are a limited number of tickets available at the high school. The cost for a torch ticket is $20.
Around 5 p.m., the group will march to Pageant Hill to burn the beetle. Joining in the march will be drummers from the high school band, as well as large puppets created by the Butterfly Puppet Theatre. The torch marchers will set fire to the beetle and a fireworks display will be provided by the Custer Volunteer Fire Department.
Fridell said safety at the event has always been held in high regard and this year will be no different.
“We’ve always needed to keep our distance from one another carrying torches and we will continue to do that, with masks added to help ensure our safety,” he said. “The beetle will burn outside as the fireworks go off, as it always has, but with masks and enough area to spread out.”
While the Burning Beetle event has always been a way for the community to gather, there’s a serious side to it as well.
“The bonfire and fireworks are a call, warning people to take action to stop insects and disease and the conditions that favor pine beetles and fires before they happen,” Fridell said. “Just because the bark beetle epidemic is over for now doesn’t mean the threats to the forest have ended.”
The night will end with the Bug Crawl, a pub crawl in downtown Custer. This year’s sponsored venues include the Custer Wolf, the Custer Beacon, Calamity Jane’s and the Gold Pan.
For more information, contact Fridell at


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