No. 1: Legion Lake Fire
The Legion Lake Fire burned 85 square miles in some of the most beautiful parts of the Black Hills. In December, the fire ripped through Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park and private land, causing thousands of dollars in damage to ranchers.
A downed power line ignited the blaze on Dec. 11 about a mile northeast of Legion Lake in Custer State Park. The fire consumed about 4 square miles the first day and then rapidly grew the next evening. Gusty winds blew through the French Creek Natural Area, causing embers to drift more than a half-mile and sparking spot fires. Roads were closed, and hundreds of people were evacuated.
Ranchers in the area loaded up livestock and were forced to leave their homes in the middle of the night. The fire destroyed outbuildings, barns and fences, but no homes were damaged.
It remains to be seen how the fire — the third-largest in modern Black Hills history — will affect tourism next summer.
No. 2: Mental health care in western South Dakota
The decision by Regional Health in February to stop taking patients with neurodevelopmental or cognitive disorders at the Rapid City Regional Hospital’s Behavioral Health Center shocked the community. But the decision ultimately lead to a broader discussion about mental health in western South Dakota.
The health care provider announced the decision in a letter and said that their behavioral health unit was not the right environment for people with those types of disorders. Seclusion and restraint rates at the facility far exceeded the national average, and Regional officials later said that was partially the reason for the policy change.
When the facility was at capacity Regional officials said they would contact the sheriff's office to "take custody of involuntarily detained persons."
Local law enforcement bristled at the idea of jailing people with mental illnesses, and a mental health alliance was formed to find a solution to the issue.
The West River Mental Health Alliance, which consists of Regional Health staff members, law enforcement and other local stakeholders, is working on a plan to address mental health issues in western South Dakota, but has so far come up with few concrete solutions.
Though previously critical of Regional’s policy changes, Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom commended the hospital for taking the initiative to form the alliance.
“We’re going to try to find a positive path forward to get more mental health services in western South Dakota,” Thom said. “This is a beginning, not an end.”
Recently, local attorney Al Scovel has been pushing the idea of bringing a mental health facility to western South Dakota. He plans to try and get a bill of support sponsored by the Legislature this session.
No. 3: The death of Craig Tieszen
Craig Tieszen was a man who died as he lived. While vacationing in the Cook Islands on Nov. 22, Tieszen drowned trying to help his brother-in-law, whose kayak had capsized.
He was 68. His brother-in-law, Brent Moline, 61, of Rapid City, also died in the accident.
The news of Tieszen's death sent shockwaves through the Black Hills. Tieszen was seen as a man after whom others should model their lives.
Before joining the Peace Corps, he grew up on a farm near Canistota in eastern South Dakota. He sold some cattle given to him by his father to raise money for college and earned a degree in chemical engineering from the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.
Following his service in the Peace Corps, Tieszen went to work for the Rapid City Police Department. After 32 years with the police department, Tieszen retired and in 2008 entered politics. He won four consecutive two-year terms in the state Senate until term limits forced him out.
He then won election to the state House of Representatives. He was serving his first term when he died.
“Most of us first heard about Craig’s loss on Thanksgiving, and for me it was a reminder to be thankful for our loved ones and for the time we’re given on this Earth,” Gov. Dennis Daugaard said at Tieszen's funeral on Dec. 4. “Craig Tieszen made the most of his time, and we can all learn from his example. Our state is a better place today because of Craig Tieszen.”
No. 4: Spearfish house fire
The community of Spearfish awoke to tragedy April 1 when an early morning house fire killed five children.
The home on North Ames Street became a makeshift memorial to the children — Phibie Joyce Moyer, 6; Clinton James Johnson, 7; Rhylin Zane Gee, 9; Justice Lillian Gene Roden, 9; and Tanlynn Crystal Rain Roden, 11.
The fire began in the east-facing porch of the multifamily residence. A 20-gallon metal trash can that was used to collect ash and hot coal from the house's wood burning fireplace was found in that area. Investigators also discovered "cigarette smoking materials" that had been disposed of by the occupants of one of the apartments.
Authorities said it was impossible to determine which items started the fire.
"Someone once said from the horror of tragedy comes the best of humanity, and what we have seen this morning is an unspeakable horror, but some extreme professionalism from our law enforcement, absolutely from our firefighters and our medical personnel," Spearfish Police Lt. Boyd Dean said during a news conference.
More than 500 people attended a candlelight vigil for the victims on April 4, and their families received an outpouring of support and donations.
No. 5: Sturgis homecoming
Homecoming festivities were cut short in October at Sturgis Brown High School following a racist incident by some students and a swell of attention on social media.
Superintendent Don Kirkegaard said the students who painted a car with "Go back to the Rez" during an unsanctioned homecoming rally also painted the school and community as racist.
“That’s not what western South Dakota or Sturgis is about,” Kirkegaard said. “I can’t defend those actions, but I can try my best to make sure it never happens again.”
Photos circulated on social media after the unsanctioned rally showed students using sledgehammers to smash a car spray painted with "Go back to the Rez." One photo showed a young man above a caption that included an obscenity followed by "Pine Ridge."
Sturgis was supposed to play a football game against Pine Ridge but after a school board vote, the game was canceled and Sturgis was forced to forfeit. The homecoming dance and parade were also called off.
Several students were suspended in connection with the incident.
After the game was canceled, several Sturgis Brown High School students denounced the actions of their classmates and called for more racial sensitivity. To that end, the Meade School District has started programs that they hope will bring a better understanding of different cultures.