CUSTER | Fire officials' fears came true Tuesday evening as high winds arrived early, fanning the flames of the Legion Lake Fire in Custer State Park and spurring another round of evacuations.
A note posted just after 7 p.m. Tuesday on the Custer State Park Facebook page, which a Legion Lake Fire Information official confirmed, said the fire's activity "has greatly increased due to high wind gusts."
Officials said the fire jumped Wildlife Loop Road due to the high winds, and there was spotting in the French Creek Natural Area, about a half-mile east of the fire's flank. An update at 8 p.m. said the fire was continuing to move east of the state park boundary.
Smoke was making it difficult for firefighters to find exactly where the fire had spotted, according to officials. At about 10:30 p.m., park officials said the fire had grown out of the park boundary to the southeast down Lame Johnny Road toward Highway 79.
At 7 p.m., officials said the Custer County Sheriff's Office was evacuating residents east of the state park's boundary near Wildlife Loop Road and LH Road. By 8 p.m., officials said those evacuations had expanded to include Cobb, Downen, Dry Creek and LH roads, west of Highway 79, as well as all areas south of Buffalo Gap, but not including Buffalo Gap residents.
Officials said conditions continued to be fluid, and urged people living in those areas to be ready to leave at short notice. All residents on Lame Johnny Road were told to plan for immediate evacuation.
As of 10:30 p.m., Highway 79 from Maverick Junction to Highway 40 was closed, and the town of Fairburn was put on pre-evacuation notice.
People can call Custer County Dispatch for evacuation information at 673-8176.
The American Red Cross said it would open an emergency shelter for those displaced by the fire at the Hermosa School, 11 Fourth Street in Hermosa.
Earlier in the day, more than 250 firefighters battling the fire braced for the Tuesday evening cold front and its as-advertised gusty winds, which officials knew carried the potential to push flames past tenuous lines barely holding the blaze in check in the rugged, timbered terrain.
“Absolutely, 100 percent,” Custer State Park spokesman Kobee Stalder said when asked about firefighter concerns with a high wind warning issued by the National Weather Service Tuesday afternoon. “It’s hard to say what can happen with that wind."
Forecasters warned of sustained 35 to 45 mph winds, with gusts as high as 60 mph after 11 p.m. Tuesday through about noon today.
The warning downgrades to an advisory from noon through 3 p.m. with winds lessening to 25 to 30 mph, with gusts up to 40 mph.
Breezes from the southeast pushed smoke from the fire into Rapid City and the northern Black Hills on Tuesday.
“That strong, cool front from the northwest should come in Tuesday evening and knock (the smoke) out,” National Weather Service meteorologist Alzina Foscato said earlier Tuesday.
A helicopter was used to map the fire on Tuesday, and the survey showed that nearly 4,000 acres, or 6.25 square miles, of timber and grassland had burned as of mid-afternoon, Stalder said. The fire was 7 percent contained at the time.
The park will "tentatively" remain closed until Friday, Custer State Park said in a Facebook post late Tuesday.
Only one small outbuilding, a wooden pump house near the fire's ignition point, has been lost. Legion Lake Lodge, Blue Bell Lodge and the State Game Lodge remain threatened.
The official cause of the fire remains under investigation. The blaze sparked to life near the intersection of U.S. Highway 16A and S.D. Highway 87 North about 7:30 a.m. Monday. Park officials initially listed a wind-blown tree toppling a power line as a potential cause.
Morning wind gusts from the northwest reaching up to 50 mph drove flames to the south-southeast as the first responding fire crews scrambled to evacuate a small number of park users and winter seasonal staff from Legion Lake Lodge, the former Star Academy East Campus and Blue Bell Lodge.
Winds eased to 35 mph in the afternoon, with relatively calm conditions after sundown holding fire growth to about 500 acres overnight.
Stalder said fire commanders have mapped outlines of where they plan to attack the blaze, with back-burning operations continuing Tuesday to eliminate dry fuels still remaining between hastily cut dozer and hand lines and already blackened hillsides.
The aim was to keep the fire south of U.S. Highway 16A, west of Wildlife Loop Road, north of Ridge Road and Lame Johnny, and east of S.D. Highway 87.
“We’ve got a good outline of where the fire is and where we’ve seen the fire going, we’ve laid out basically a box around it,” Stalder said earlier in the day. “This is where we can basically dig our heels in, get hand crews on the ground and be able to fight it.”
He said commanders initially planned to have up to eight engines and 80 to 100 firefighters watching for potential blowups overnight, but later decided to cut back to about 20 firefighters to save resources for daylight on Wednesday. Once the fire flared up Tuesday night, however, officials reversed course again and brought in more resources to battle the blaze.
Stalder called the level of dryness in the timber and grassland “extraordinary” for mid-December.
“It might be December 12, but the fire fuels are just so unique for this time of year because we are so dry. We haven’t seen a lot of precipitation for probably two months,” Stalder said.