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While the cause of the Legion Lake Fire officially remains under investigation, a downed power line is suspected of sparking a wildfire which shut down Custer State Park Monday.

The blaze burned an estimated 2,500 acres of timber and dry grassland south and east of the intersection of U.S. Highway 16A and S.D. 87 North, where the fire is believed to have ignited about 7:30 a.m. Monday.

Pushed by swirling winds gusting up to 50 mph, the fire moved along Centennial Trail toward the Star Academy East Campus and Badger Hole. By Monday afternoon the head of the fire had crossed Heddy Draw and spread to both sides of Barnes Canyon Road.

Firefighters from state and federal sources were joined by local volunteer departments in scrambling to protect the nearby Legion Lake Lodge and Badger Hole historic site. Blue Bell Lodge to the south and the State Game Lodge to the east are also threatened.

As of late Monday the only structure lost was a small wooden pump house near where the fire started. 

“Most of the effort now has been put toward stopping the forward progress of the fire," said Jay Wickham, South Dakota Wildland Fire management officer in Custer State Park.

Wickham said a Rocky Mountain Type II team will take over management of firefighting efforts Tuesday morning. Two heavy air tankers and a helicopter have been ordered as well.

Park Superintendent Matt Snyder said Monday morning the fire appeared to have been ignited by a power line that was downed by a falling tree. “From there, with the high winds, it proceeded to move,” he said.

The winds and rugged terrain have made conditions difficult for an estimated 200 firefighters battling the blaze. Wickham said the Legion Lake fire is in territory consumed by the epic Galena Fire, which scorched nearly 18,000 acres in 1988.

Stands of short Ponderosa Pines bunched close together are feeding the flames, Wickham said. “That makes it difficult to fight because it’s not safe to get into fuels like that."

Seasonal park staff at Legion Lake Lodge Blue Bell Lodge and the former Star Academy East Campus were evacuated, Snyder said.

With most lodgings closed for the winter, only a few visitors were in the park Monday, said park visitor services representative Kobee Stalder.

The fire spread rapidly through dry grasses and fallen timber with some indications of torching, Snyder said. There is little snow cover in the park in the area of the fire. 

Several roads have been closed, including portions of U.S. Highway 16A and S.D. Highway 87 in the area of Legion Lake. 

The park will remain closed to visitors through at least today. “We don’t need people getting out there thinking they can hike in a part of the park, not knowing where the wind is going to take this fire,” Snyder said.

U.S. Sen. Mike Rounds said in a tweet Monday that his office is closely monitoring the wildfires in the park. "Endless thanks to the emergency crews and firefighters from across the Black Hills, who are working in difficult weather conditions to contain the fire," he wrote. 

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Journal staff writer Jimmy Nesbitt contributed to this report. 

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