Remembering Jasper

Jason Ferguson
This story is being reprinted from our 2010 issue that marked 10 years since the Jasper Fire.
On Aug. 24, 2000, Janice Stevenson of Newcastle, Wyo., stopped her car to go to the bathroom along the side of the road just west of Hell Canyon. While stopped, Stevenson lit a cigarette with a match. At 2:17 p.m., she dropped the match, watched a small fire start, got in her car and drove away.
The ensuing fire was the largest in the recorded history of the Black Hills National Forest.
The Jasper Fire, as it was later named, consumed 83,508 acres of land before it was contained Sept. 8, 2000, and later controlled Sept. 25. The fire cost $8.2 million to supress and came within six miles of Custer. On one day alone it scorched more than 48,000 acres. 
For those who fought it, saw it in person or dealt with its effects long after it had been extinguished, the Jasper Fire is an event that will forever be ingrained in their memory.
“Maybe you should get home.”
Joe Jackl, owner of Bavarian Inn Motel, was at the Central States Fair in Rapid City along with his son, Max, and one of his son’s friends when he noticed the smoke column from what at the time was only a 1,000-acre fire growing on the horizon near Custer. Before long, ash was falling on the fairgrounds. That’s when Jackl began to wonder what was happening.
“Ginny (Joe’s wife) called from home and said the fire had doubled in size in a few hours,” Jackl said. “She said, ‘Maybe you should come home.’”
That was Saturday, Aug. 26, when the fire exploded, burning 48,000 acres in about six hours. The distance the fire was traveling at that time was the equivalent of seven football fields a minute. No one wanted to get in front of it and no one knew how to stop it.
By this time, some of the areas west of town were being evacuated and Custer was preparing for the same. On the drive home, Jackl could hardly see, the smoke and ash were so bad.
At the time the fire broke out, Custer County emergency management director Mike Carter was being a father. His daughter had just finished up her undergraduate work in Wyoming and he was in Casper helping her pack and load up for a move back to South Dakota. That’s when the governor’s office called him and told him in no uncertain terms “get back to Custer.”
Carter headed out and by the time he got to Lusk, Wyo., still an hour and a half from where the fire had erupted, the horizon was filled with smoke. At that point he knew things were getting serious.
“It was obvious to me the type of project fire we had,” he said.
For Gary Lipp, the realization of what was happening sank in about an hour after the fire broke out. At that time, Lipp, now retired, was the assistant fire manager for Hell Canyon Ranger District of the Black Hills National Forest. Lipp recalls the summer of 2000 being extremely dry and a horrible year for fires. The average number of fires in the district, he said, were 50. That year, there had been over 100. None of those fires, however, burned with the ferocity the Jasper Fire was about to unleash. In the throes of a drought, Hell Canyon — and the surrounding area, for that matter — were ripe for disaster.
“The perfect storm”
Not only had Custer received little in the way of precipitation that summer, but temperatures were extremely high and the moisture in the fuel for the fire — trees, weeds, etc. — was very low. Combine that with a steady wind, and the area was a tinderbox waiting for a match ... a match Stevenson provided.
“Once it picked up, the color of the smoke changed from white to brown, brown to black,” Lipp said. “The color of smoke is an indicator of how conditions are. When it goes to black, you know it’s running through the trees.”
Soon, the fire was what’s referred to as a “crown fire,” meaning the fire was speeding from treetop to treetop, ahead of the ground fire it was creating.
“When you get a crown fire, it’s a different ballgame,” Lipp said. “There’s not a lot you can do.”
“We knew it was
going to go big”
By the time the fire had reached 1,000 acres the day it started, Hwy. 16 through Hell Canyon had been shut down, Jewel Cave National Monument had been evacuated and mutual aid resources were racing to the scene. Among the first on the scene was Joe Harbach, the incident commander for the Type III interagency team that managed the fire at the outset. Harbach, a long-time Forest Service employee, was also a former Custer Volunteer Fire Department fire chief.
“Once I got up [in a helicopter] and flew the perimeter of the fire, and saw what was lying ahead of it ... it was setting itself up to not be a real good day for firefighters,” Harbach said. “It had a lot of potential and a lot of room to grow in short order.”
Although all involved thought it had the potential to be a big fire, nobody was ready for the 48,000- acre explosion Saturday. The rugged topography, Hell Canyon, upslope winds and the dry conditions all combined to send the fire running at a frightening pace. A thunderhead above the fire was producing ice crystals and a plume in excess of 35,000 feet into the air. It reached the point it was creating its own weather.
“From then on, we were going to do whatever we could,” Harbach said. “We knew it was going to go big.”
“The stuff it was doing at night was just crazy”
Complicating matters in battling the fire was the difficulty of finding any anchor point or fuel break. As always, firefighter safety was the top priority, and putting crews in front of the fire wasn’t an option. Initially, the fire was on the north side of Hwy. 16, so the highway was used as a natural anchor point. Control lines started at the highway and the fire was flanked wherever possible. However, the Jasper Fire didn’t lie down at night like most fires do, and eventually spotted across the highway.
“It wasn’t slowing down when the sun went down,” said Mike Lloyd, district ranger at Hell Canyon Ranger District at the time. “It was making big runs at night. When it does that, you really have to worry. The stuff it was doing at night was just crazy.”
Fire crews worked diligently to save all structures at Jewel Cave National Monument, at which they were successful. The game plan of flanking the highway, requesting more resources and continually attacking the fire was continued. When a Type I team was brought in, they continued with the same plan Harbach’s team had formulated.
“Some days, we knew we wouldn’t gain much ground,” Harbach said.
The fire was burning actively on all edges and exhibiting bizarre behavior. It would burn in all directions, burn one way, then another, constantly switching back and forth. When it made its big run, it continued to widen out and burned through every type of fire treatment the Forest Service employs: fuel breaks, thinned areas — nothing could slow the fire down.
“When conditions are ripe, it doesn’t make any difference what’s out there,” Lipp said. “Except the ocean.”
“It was just a fire that had extreme fuel loading and perfect conditions for combustion,” Carter said. “You can’t put people in front of a fire like that. There is absolutely no way you have to stop it.”
For a long time, the fire didn’t receive the resources it needed because it wasn’t deemed a Type I fire. That year was a busy fire year in the country and it was determined the Jasper Fire wasn’t a big enough threat yet to homes or communities, so it remained a Type III fire. That was until Todd Pechota, a member of the Type III team, finally convinced higher-ups the fire was creeping closer and closer to subdivisions west of Custer, Custer City itself and Hill City.
“The minute we pulled the trigger on that, we got an overhead team within 24 hours on the fire and unlimited resources,” Harbach said. “We did everything we could until we had to pull the trigger to get those extra people here. For a while we were left with, ‘Do what you can.’ That’s frustrating at times.”
“The framework and
groundwork were laid
to evacuate the city”
As county emergency management director, Carter’s job was to help organize non-suppression issues of life safety. Even though there weren’t a lot of people in the path of the fire, 240 were evacuated the second day. The Pleasant Valley and Pass Creek area were officials’ biggest concern, as the fire burned toward Custer. There was also the issue of maintaining security around the fire area until it was safe to let residents back into their homes.
There were daily multi-agency meetings held and the public was given updates via meetings held at the Showbarn. Some entities had met with the city of Custer and assigned individuals with different quadrants of the city they were to go to notify if an evactuation was deemed necessary. Carter said the city was about a day and a half away from being evacuated if the fire had continued on its course.
“The framework and groundwork were laid to evacuate the city up to and including relocation points for displaced population,” he said.
Although the fire burned toward Custer for a while, it never got closer than six miles. Lloyd and the rest of those who recall the day said, while the potential of the fire burning toward the community was a possibility, Custer was never in real danger.
“After the first couple of days I started to feel better about it,” he said. “I don’t think I was ever worried about my neighborhood (north and west of town), but we were sure worried about some west of town.”
“People were scared and people were leaving,” Jackl said. “Sometimes you couldn’t tell there was a fire, and then the wind shifted and you couldn’t see in front of your face. It was weird.”
The fire severly diminished the tourism season while it was burning, but it didn’t kill it altogether. Some residents prepared for a possible evacuation by loading up their vehicles, ready to go at a moment’s notice.
“It crossed everybody’s minds,” said John Carson, owner of Carson Drug. “I think everyone was concerned and aware.”
“The perfect location”
Eventually, thanks to calmer winds, lower temperatures and some much-needed precipitation, firefighters got the upper hand on the fire. By early September, the fire had been mostly contained and mop-up projects and damage asssement began. All told, several animals perished due to smoke and fire. While at its peak, 1,160 people battled the fire which consumed 224 million board-feet of timber. Other losses, according to the Forest Service, were 150 miles of range fence, 65 livestock water tanks, 20 miles of range water pipeline, 17 wildlife water developments, 59 wooden powerline structures, 2,738 feet of above-ground telephone line and parts of several archeological sites. The fire postponed the start of school in Custer County a week.
Amazingly, one summer cabin and three outbuildings were the only structures lost in the fire. The fact that there wasn’t more property damage, serious injuries or loss of life still staggers those who were there. The area where the Jasper Fire burned is literally the only area in the Black Hills where a fire could have burned that many acres without damaging homes.
“It’s a miracle,” Carter said.
“We were extremely fortunate. It could have been terrible,” Harbach said.
“Mother Nature did a good job of picking that spot,” Lipp said.

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