Each year nearly 2 million people come to Custer State Park to see buffalo, drive the wildlife loop, hike Lover’s Leap, fish on Legion Lake, and swim and kayak at Sylvan. The 72,000-acre getaway destination is home to the State Game Lodge — the historic building that President Calvin Coolidge used as his summer White House — and is a place where memories are made.
Custer State Park employees could not have anticipated the events of the week ahead when they came to work on Dec. 11. That morning a call went out on the radio to relay that a fire had started near Legion Lake. As one staff member put it, “I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. Usually fires in December include a lot of mop up and just driving around.” But after arriving at the scene, it was clear this was going to be entirely different.
Over the next two days, the weather conditions and terrain made things difficult. High winds, unseasonably warm temperatures and dry conditions led the fire to grow to 54,000 acres, the third largest recorded fire in the Black Hills.
We were fortunate to have our own Type II Incident Command Team based in the Black Hills to lead the response. We could not have responded as quickly or as effectively without South Dakota Wildland Fire.
Professional and volunteer firefighters from all over the state and region responded. Ranchers and Custer State Park staff all contributed. When high winds caused the fire to jump containment lines, firefighters, emergency responders, law enforcement and park staff went door-to-door to help families evacuate as the fire pressed at their heels. More than 340 firefighters worked that night and in the days after to protect primary structures. Their efforts helped abate the spread of the fire into Wind Cave National Park and limited damages to livestock feed, wildlife and timber.
Thanks to the efforts of all involved, no lives were lost, no one was injured and all 175 houses in the area were protected.
A fire can be healthy if it clears grass and undergrowth, and in many areas of the park, that’s what happened. Thankfully the buffalo herd and wildlife were largely unaffected. Custer State Park lost fencing, most of the winter pastures, and some stands of timber, but the recovery is well underway with fencing crews on site, hay purchases, and relocation of some buffalo.
The Legion Lake Fire could have been worse, if not for the hard work and heroic efforts of firefighters. It was South Dakota at its best — people from all across the state and region pulling together in a time of need.