Area developers and local officials have a vision to make the area east of Fifth Street in downtown Rapid City the next frontier for development.
On Wednesday afternoon, city planners laid out one of the largest steps in realizing that dream when they revealed a draft ordinance that would rezone a vast swath of eastern downtown Rapid City into a new “urban commercial district” designation.
“The city is proposing some pretty substantial changes to the zoning regulations,” said city long range planner Sarah Hanzel on Wednesday at an open house meeting intended to inform and discuss the proposed change with area citizens, property owners and developers.
“There seems to be a lot of support for a more mixed-use environment, expanding that sort of feel of the downtown environment further on toward the School of Mines. There seems to be a lot excitement about that and the potential for what types of new development could occur.”
The proposed rezone is targeted at a semi-rectangular area as far south as Quincy Street to as far north as Nikko Street and the railroad. Surbeck Lane would represent the easternmost border while Fifth Street would be the westernmost border.
The idea comes as a direct result of the city’s adoption of the Downtown Area Master Plan in October 2016. The 226-page document identifies “priorities for downtown improvements to guide the city of Rapid City, Business Improvement District, and the community at large for the next five- to seven-year investment cycle.” Creating a mixed-use friendly environment, innovation district and connecting corridor to the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology were a few of the plan’s main priorities.
Some of the most noticeable changes would be increasing the allowable maximum height of any structure to eight stories and requiring a 20-foot graduated setback after five stories for any structure facing a pedestrian oriented street — the north and south side of Main and St. Joseph streets from Birch Avenue to West Boulevard and the east and west side of Sixth Street from Columbus to Apolda streets. In addition, new structures would be required to be setback between zero and 10 feet from the front property line.
Off-street parking requirements would also be lessened, with exemptions provided when in the presence of secured bicycle parking spaces or on-street parking spaces adjacent to the structure. Landscaping outside buildings and buffering parking lots are also stipulated, as are certain design requirements related to window size, transparency, building face design variations, and locations for the main entrance. Two additional “pedestrian elements” are required but can be chosen from a menu of possibilities like installing secured benches, tables or bike racks every 50 feet of frontage.
“All of those things have a big impact on the visual experience downtown,” Hanzel said of the requirements, which are intended to create a pedestrian- and bike-friendly downtown corridor.
Any existing structures in the proposed zoning district would not be required to meet the new requirements unless it underwent an expansion that was greater than 40 percent of the current square foot gross area of the building.
“Anything that’s existing today can remain exactly as it is,” Hanzel said, noting the buildings would then be classified by the city as “legal nonconforming.”
Hanzel said she has received calls about the proposed change but most of them have been from developers and property owners excited at the prospects and eager to see the rezone take place. The ordinance is expected to come before the Rapid City Council in January or February.
And while it is a huge step toward developing and expanding downtown Rapid City, Hanzel recognized that it will also present a learning process for her department.
“It’s a new way of looking at development for our planning department,” she said.
“I think we’ll have the ordinance be adopted, and then you know a year, 18 months later, we’ll want to look back and see have there been any issues? What modifications or how should we adapt to make sure we’re addressing any issues? I think that’s reasonable.”
Scott Wheeler knew the wind had come up Tuesday night when cellphones began chirping at the Legion Lake Fire command center in Custer State Park.
A division supervisor, he said, noticed an increasing glow from the southeastern sky where none had been seen earlier in the evening.
As the night went on, that glow would turn into one of the largest wildfires in modern Black Hills history, threatening homes, animals and everything else in its path.
More reports of a jump in fire activity came in to the fire command center, located at the park shop complex west of the State Game Lodge on U.S. Highway 16A.
“We could see a spot fire was really established and was really going to make a run toward our desired lines,” said Wheeler, from the Black Hills National Forest Hell Canyon Ranger District.
Then came the winds. Picking up with a vengeance earlier than expected, gusts of up to 33 mph blew nearly straight through French Creek Natural Area, already heavy with fire activity on Tuesday, carrying hot embers and igniting spot fires nearly a half-mile away to the west of the Wildlife Loop Road.
The growing spot fire jumped the Wildlife Loop Road and shot through private ranch pasture land between the park and S.D. Highway 79. Another spot fire by French Creek Horse Camp moved south-southeast through Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park, coming within two miles of the town of Buffalo Gap.
When the sun came up Wednesday morning and fire crews had a chance to survey the devastation, what they found was staggering: the Legion Lake Fire had grown from around 4,000 acres on Tuesday to more than 35,000 acres, or roughly 55 square miles.
By Wednesday evening, the total acreage burned stood at more than 47,000 acres. The fire is 10 percent contained, and a cause has not been determined.
While no one has been injured in the fire, 175 homes were ordered to evacuate Tuesday night because of the dangerous conditions. Included in the order were the small towns of Fairburn and Buffalo Gap and residents between the park and Highway 79 to the east.
A majority did heed the call to leave, scrambling to load pickup-drawn livestock trailers with cattle and horses, according to Custer State Park ranger Jim Ganser.
“The neat thing was there was a lot of neighbor helping neighbor, which is what they do around here,” Ganser said.
According to a release from the Legion Lake Fire Information Center, firefighters made a stand along Highway 79, successfully setting burnouts along the west side of the highway north of Maverick Junction to help stall the fire’s advance.
The highway was reopened to traffic by late morning on Wednesday, with residents of Fairburn, Buffalo Gap and those living along Tatanka Spirit Road west of Highway 79 allowed to return home later that afternoon.
The fast-moving flames left a desolate, blackened landscape in its wake. Twenty-five bridges were either destroyed or threatened, and the fire also caused significant damage to three watersheds and other infrastructure in Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park.
Evident throughout the east and southeast side of Custer State Park were signs of entire stands of trees going up in flames, called torching, and flames jumping from treetop-to treetop called crowning.
Highway barrier posts and fence posts also burned.
Much of the smoke visible in the central part of the park came from burnout operations designed to remove tinder-dry brown grasses and small trees near the State Game Lodge as a means of protecting the historic structure from an active run of the fire.
Sections of Highway 16A through the park, expected to remain closed through at least Friday, were obscured by heavy smoke from burnouts set on Tuesday.
After a relatively calm Wednesday evening, firefighters are bracing for more windy conditions Thursday with gusts up to 40 mph, a bad combination for wildfires when combined with extraordinarily dry conditions for December, Wheeler said.
The best chance for precipitation won't come until Saturday, when cooler air will move into the area bringing more moisture and the chance for snow, said Scott Rudge, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Rapid City.
Usually, this time of year the ground inside the park is covered in snow, but instead "we're brown," Wheeler said. "There’s no green component to any of the fuels. We’re having atypical weather patterns because of these sustained high velocity winds day after day after day. Conditions are kind of tough for the guys out there.”
State asks for help from FEMA
The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Wednesday that it has approved a request from the state to use federal funds to help with firefighting costs associated with the Legion Lake Fire.
According to a news release, FEMA funding will be available to pay 75 percent of the state's eligible firefighting costs.
"Emergency management and wild land fire staff were in communication with FEMA and made the request at governor’s direction," said Tony Venhuizen, Daugaard's chief of staff, in an email.
The grants do not provide assistance to home or business owners.
School closes, mail delivery suspended
Meanwhile, Hermosa School suspended classes Wednesday until further notice.
The Custer School District superintendent made the decision since the evacuees included Hermosa School’s students and teachers, and because part of S.D. Highway 79 that led to the school was closed Tuesday night, said school principal Lori Enright. Highway 79 was reopened as of Wednesday afternoon.
On Tuesday, smoke from the wildfire grew so strong and blew toward Hermosa School, causing physical discomfort to some students and teachers. The K-8 school sent some students home, decided to cancel its outside recess that day and a basketball game that night, Enright said.
Fifteen miles to the south, in nearby Fairburn, mail delivery was suspended because of the Legion Lake Fire, according to a release from the U.S. Postal Service.
The post office is closed and operations will be adjusted until conditions improve, the release said.
Fairburn has a population of around 85, and the local post office delivers service to 59 people and 52 PO boxes. Retail services are available at the Hermosa Post Office, where customers can also pick up with their mail with a valid ID.
Breakfast included 11 boxes of donuts and pastries; lunch, eight boxes of large pizzas. On the same long table were fresh fruits, cookies, crackers, pudding cups, cereal bars, herbal teas and energy drinks.
These were among the food and drinks available to 69-year-old Bill Thompson on Wednesday as he waited at the Hermosa School’s old gym for news about the Legion Lake Fire. Thompson left his house in Fairburn, a Custer County community of about 85, around 1 a.m. Wednesday after emergency personnel asked him to evacuate because of the fire threat.
The wildfire on Custer State Park, which began burning Monday, grew almost tenfold Tuesday night to 35,000 acres due to high winds.
Thompson, a Marine veteran, lived only 3 to 4 miles away from the fire. “When I stepped out of my house … I could see a lot of light, like dancing light,” he said, describing how the flames moved in the wind. Thompson and his son left with two vehicles filled with valuables, including his mother’s death certificate and his archery equipment.
The American Red Cross opened the Hermosa School evacuation center around 9:45 p.m. Tuesday, less than two hours after Custer County Emergency Management told the nonprofit group it was going to start evacuating residents that night. The school, located about 20 miles from the fire zone, is the Red Cross’s pre-arranged evacuation center in Custer County.
Six evacuees spent the night at the shelter, including 12-year-old Ruby Streeter, another Fairburn resident.
Before her family arrived at the old school gym in the wee hours of Wednesday, Ruby’s dad Steve Streeter moved their animals to a friend’s property. They included goats, a horse, chickens, cats and two geckos.
Ruby, a seventh grader at Hermosa School, said she made sure to grab her sketch pads and colored pencils.
Some evacuees stayed with friends and family members, the Red Cross said. But others who lived within the fire zone refused to leave, which officials said was a normal occurrence during natural disasters.
“This typically happens … People don’t want to leave their homes,” said Richard Smith, executive director of the American Red Cross for Central & Western South Dakota. Authorities, he said, cannot force these residents to go.
Smith advised people who are preparing to evacuate to pack the following essentials: medication, mementos such as photographs, as well as important documents like their birth certificate, social security card and passport.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Custer County Emergency Management director Mike Carter said he didn’t have complete figures yet on the total number of people who needed to be evacuated from the fire zone or those who refused to do so. He said no residential structures had been lost in the fire.
The Hermosa School shelter can accommodate up to 100 people, and there are enough supplies to meet present needs, said Ray Sorensen, disaster program manager at the Red Cross for Central & Western South Dakota. Community members also volunteered to help at the shelter.
The Red Cross said it welcomes cash donations, but that due to the community’s generosity, it already has enough food and clothing for the wildfire.
“Look at all this food,” Streeter pointed at the meals and snacks, some of which had been donated by businesses. There was clearly more than enough for her and the gym’s temporary residents.