1959 Deadwood Fire

This image shows horizontal contours, or terracing, used to prevent erosion in the slopes of hills near Deadwood in the wake of the 1959 Deadwood Fire.

DEADWOOD | Epic wildfires are interwoven into the natural and man-made history of the Black Hills, nowhere more so than in and around Deadwood.

Even the town’s name comes from the first early European settlers, who, upon entering the Black Hills in 1875, noted countless fallen dead trees, evidence of a massive earlier fire.

Other epic conflagrations would follow, testing the resiliency of the Northern Hills residents, who found a way to recover and rebuild.

A fire on Sept. 26, 1879, destroyed the first shanty settlement of Deadwood, scorching 300-plus wooden structures.

Residents at the time sat on the surrounding hillsides and watched the town burn, then rebuilt with brick-and-mortar.

The 1959 Deadwood Fire was no different. The early September fire came during a time of intense summer temperatures, low humidity and drought conditions.

The fire burned 4,501 acres of public and private lands and also consumed 60 structures, including seven homes and two lumber plants in Deadwood.

Priorities for reclaiming the land in the fire’s aftermath included aerial seeding of grasses and replanting thousands of tree seedlings in the burned areas just to the north of Deadwood and along a pair of burned swaths to the south.

One of the more visible remnants of reclamation efforts from the 1959 fire can still be seen above the Deadwood Lodge on Highway 85 just north of Deadwood.

Horizontal contour lines, or terraces, can be seen on the hillsides behind the resort.

The terracing on Forest Service land, done soon after the fire was out, was an attempt to mitigate heavy rainfall or snowfall saturating ground without any plant life to keep it anchored.

“They contoured the slopes after the fire because they were afraid of erosion,” said Jeff Gies, fuels specialist for the Black Hills National Forest, Northern Hills Ranger District, in Spearfish. “Then they came in and planted trees afterwards.”

Records of reclamation from 60 years ago are difficult to find, Gies said.

There are still open areas or stands of Aspen trees where efforts to replant pines were apparently unsuccessful.

Where pines do exist in burn areas dating back to the 1959 fire, some trees may appear stunted.

Gies said early replanting efforts used seedlings from other nurseries outside the Black Hills, even from other states.

“It seemed to go along with what we’ve seen in the other burn areas of the Black Hills, where they replanted and didn’t use Black Hills seed stock,” Gies said.

According to a 1964 report on the Deadwood Fire, 1.5 million board-feet of lumber was salvaged from the burn area.

Gies said timber thinning and salvage sales continue on Forest Service land to the south of Deadwood and Lead that were burned in the 2002 Grizzly Gulch Fire, including some of the same area involved in the 1959 Deadwood Fire.

Reclamation practices have changed greatly since the days of the Deadwood Fire.

Burned-area recovery teams will assess what reclamation efforts are best, taking into account heritage, archaeological, botany or hydrology factors, he said.

“There’s a definite system in place now for large fires,” he said.

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