DEADWOOD | Just after 1 p.m. on Sept. 8, 1959, an elderly resident of the Hillcrest Manor Rest Home in Central City, not realizing the peril he was about to spark, stepped outside on a blisteringly hot late-summer Tuesday and struck a match to a piece of scrap paper in an attempt to ignite trash in an incinerator barrel.
Swirling winds gusting more than 30 miles per hour whipped the flaming paper into a stand of tinder-dry grass, the erupting flames quickly scorching a hillside and leaping into the tops of tall pines.
The alarm immediately went out to the U.S. Forest Service and to volunteer fire departments in Deadwood, Lead and Central City.
Assistant Fire Chief A.A. Coburn, in a 1964 report, said the Deadwood VFD received the call about 1:10 p.m.
Two Forest Service units, jeeps equipped for fighting wildfires, were already battling the fast-growing blaze when units from Deadwood, Lead and Central City arrived on scene.
By then the fire had already scorched more than 100 yards of grass and timber in the narrow gulch and was crowning, burning from tree-top to tree-top.
“From the direction of the fire, it was apparent that it was headed for the edge of Deadwood and that became our immediate concern,” he wrote.
The fire spread rapidly, racing about 2-1/2 miles from the ignition point to Highway 85, on the northwest edge of Deadwood, in about an hour and 20 minutes.
City officials leapt into action as well, ordering the dismissal of classes from schools and the evacuation of the Deadwood hospital within an hour of the fire starting.
By 2 p.m. most of local businesses had also closed, but with the ordered full evacuation of Deadwood itself underway, able-bodied men stayed behind to help fight the fire.
Retired Rapid City Central boys basketball coach Dave Strain, then a 28-year-old coach for Deadwood High School, volunteered.
“First thing I knew about it somebody came into the classroom and said there’s a fire. The school is to be evacuated,” said Strain, 88, of Rapid City.
Strain joined other volunteers on fire trucks headed for the eastern flank of the fire along Highway 85 north toward Spearfish.
They deployed near the present location of the Deadwood Lodge, but they weren’t able to stay long.
“About all you could see was the smoke and fire coming over the hill,” Strain recalled. “We had to evacuate the spot we came to because the fire was moving hard.”
A cold front swept through the region about 3:30 p.m., shifting the initial southerly winds to equally strong winds coming from the north.
The wind shift pushed the fire to the south on both ends of Deadwood, jumping Highway 14 to the east and west and filling the town with smoke and ash.
“The town was pretty well surrounded by fire,” said Strain, who recalls deer running along streets to escape the flames. “That’s what made it pretty touchy there.”
By late afternoon, thousands of firefighters from federal agencies, along with volunteer departments from nearby Northern Hills towns, rural areas and reservations had joined the fight.
Shifts of miners from Homestake Gold Mine in Lead were also pressed into duty.
“By 8 o’clock they had 3,000 to 4,000 people on that fire. That to me was amazing,” said Pennington County Fire Coordinator Jerome F. Harvey, who began his firefighting career in Lead and whose research on the Deadwood Fire is a source for much of the information in this story.
Harvey’s father, also a firefighter and also named Jerome, was a 1959 graduate of Deadwood High School, then working for Arnio’s Sawmill.
On Sept. 8, he had taken a truckload of wooden forms to Pierre for concrete forms for the construction of Oahe Dam.
Stopping for gas in Philip for the return trip, he was told that Deadwood had burned.
Returning after nightfall, Harvey was stopped at the outskirts of town by a group of volunteer firefighters begging for a ride on the flatbed truck.
Harvey himself wound up pressed into firefighting service, battling the blaze as it swept to the south of Deadwood near Strawberry Hill.
He and other volunteers were working spot fires on the south end of the hill when they heard an unmistakable roar.
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"There's this roaring noise a fire makes when it is topping in the trees," he told the Journal in 2009.
"I knew we were going to get trapped, so I started down the hill toward Little Strawberry Creek. My only thinking was to get in that water."
Harvey and the others lay down in the creek.
"The fire burned right over the top of us," he said. "None of us got hurt."
Others, however, weren’t so lucky.
Two National Guardsmen were seriously burned when the fire overtook their bulldozers while fighting the fire.
There were many other injuries, but no fatalities, said Jerome F. Harvey.
Retired Deadwood firefighter Jerry Pontius was a student at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in 1959.
He and two college friends came to Deadwood to help fight the fire.
Pontius’ father, Elmer, was an assistant chief and also ran a chainsaw shop.
Pontius said he and his classmates got three chainsaws together and joined a bulldozer crew from Ellsworth Air Force Base, headed by a U.S. Forest Service supervisor
They worked late into the night on Sept. 8 building a fire line on Strawberry Ridge, just to the northeast of Strawberry Hill.
“We cut down trees and a bulldozer cut the fire line,” Pontius said. “After we got the fire line cut it was a matter of holding it to that fire line.’
Pontius said the fire line was completed about midnight and held for the remainder of the week.
“I went back to Rapid City when they relieved me and I slept 20 hours,” he said.
Pontius went on to serve 55 years with the Deadwood Volunteer Fire Department, retiring from active duty in 2008.
The Deadwood Fire would burn for almost a week, scorching a total of 4,501 acres.
Deadwood was spared total destruction, but 60 structures, including a Barber Transportation Warehouse, two wood processing plants and other businesses and at least seven homes were lost to the flames.
The fire marked the first use of aerial slurry drops in the western United States. Three helicopters, two converted World War II TBF Avengers and a B-24 bomber dropped a total of 180,000 gallons of a bentonite slurry on the fire.
“This proved very effective in knocking tree fires to the ground and retarding spread until ground crews could move in and control it,” Coburn wrote.
Pontius said the Deadwood Fire is known for the freelance method by which it was fought. Volunteer firefighter groups seldom were in radio contact.
He recalls one group of firefighters made up of guests at the downtown Franklin Hotel.
“They were carrying snow shovels, whatever tools they could find. It was not highly organized,” he said.
Another wildfire, the 2002 Grizzly Gulch Fire, also threatened both Deadwood and Lead. The 11,600-acre blaze over 13 days also consumed seven homes and 13 outbuildings.
In 1959, Deadwood was fortunate to have escaped major damage, thanks to the efforts of thousands of firefighters, but also to the whims of nature, Pontius said.
“It could have wiped the whole town out with the wind doing what it did,” he said.