EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series about the underlying causes of the ignition and spread of December's Legion Lake Fire. Click here for Part 1.
If a wildfire has to start, a place like the origin point of the Legion Lake Fire might seem preferable.
The wintertime blaze ignited alongside a highway, diagonally across the road from an occupied residence, where two people spotted the fire and reported it within minutes of its ignition.
How, then, did a fire that was quickly noticed in an accessible spot ultimately grow to burn 84 square miles and become the third-largest wildfire ever measured in the Black Hills?
Paul Schnose, one of the many ranchers who lost grazing grass and fences to the fire after it burned its way out of Custer State Park, was hesitant to blame Black Hills Energy, park officials, firefighters or anyone else this spring as green grass sprouted from the charred earth.
“I don’t know if I feel they’re responsible,” Schnose said. “It was just an accident, it seems to me.”
The fire was indeed accidental, and weather was a prime culprit in its ignition and spread. But increased scrutiny of other factors has bubbled up during the months since the December fire as more information, criticism and speculation have emerged regarding the expectations of the firefighters, the presence of logging debris piles that may have fueled the fire’s spread, the diminished wintertime availability of firefighting resources, and the strategies and tactics used to fight the fire.
The fire began at about 7:30 a.m. Dec. 11 when wind gusts of up to 50 mph blew a tree onto a power line in Custer State Park.
According to rough measurements by the Journal, the tree was perhaps 10 to 15 yards from the south shoulder of U.S. Highway 16A, about a half-mile northeast of Legion Lake and 200 feet west of a junction with Needles Highway. The power line crosses over Highway 16A at that location.
The 70-foot-tall tree, a seemingly healthy ponderosa pine, fell onto the power line from outside the line’s right-of-way corridor. The line broke and threw off sparks that ignited the fire, according to an origin and cause report filed later by Phil Geenen, a fire investigator for the Wildland Fire Division of the state Department of Agriculture.
Conditions were ripe for the wildfire to spread. Besides the wind, which had been blowing strongly for about a week, there was no snow cover over the dormant vegetation in the state park, the ground was not uniformly frozen, and relative humidity was low.
Yet, according to Darren Clabo, who is the state fire meteorologist and a research scientist at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, firefighters who responded to the Legion Lake Fire were trained by experience to assume they would face a small, manageable blaze. Clabo said during an April 19 presentation at a scientific conference in Rapid City that the largest previous December wildfire in the post-settlement history of the Black Hills was 20 acres, which equates to 0.03 square miles.
“That’s the ‘slide’ in the firefighters’ heads when they’re rolling up on a fire in December in the Black Hills: ‘This fire might only get to 10 or 20 acres, at most,’” Clabo said.
But Clabo said dormant wintertime vegetation can ignite in warm, dry and windy conditions much the same way that drought-affected vegetation might ignite during the height of summer.
As the wind pushed the fire southeast up a forested hill from the ignition point, the flames spread into a nearly 2-square-mile patch of forested terrain crossed only by power lines and logging roads. In that area, satellite images from before the fire show there were perhaps 10 large piles of treetops and other unwanted natural debris left behind by a logging operation in 2016.
“After logging goes in, you get tops of the trees, they cut ’em off, they stack ’em all up in these 20- or 30-foot-tall piles that are the size of this room,” Clabo said during his April 19 presentation in a meeting room at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center. “Just old, dead tree stuff.”
The fire ignited those piles.
“All of that heat within these machine piles gave you 100- to 200-foot flame lengths,” Clabo said, adding that the embers from those flames were driven ahead by the wind.
Had the fire not started in an area where the wind could push it into the machine piles, Clabo said, firefighters would have gotten the blaze under control much sooner.
“It would’ve been a little 7-acre postage stamp that we wouldn’t be talking about here today,” Clabo said.
Ben Wudtke, executive director of the Black Hills Forest Resource Association, a timber-industry trade group, said in a recent Journal interview that he disagrees with Clabo’s assessment of the role played by the machine piles.
Wudtke said the logging that had occurred in the area of the fire’s ignition removed potential fuel and kept the fire intensity lower than it might have been otherwise. He does not believe the ignition of the piles was a key factor in the growth of the wildfire.
“Most foresters really don’t view piles as a main hazard,” said Wudtke, who has a master’s degree in forest ecology. “The main hazard is the actual fuel in the forest before the harvesting is done.”
The presence of the machine piles — which are also called slash piles — was not unusual. There are thousands of slash piles of varying sizes in the Black Hills, not only in Custer State Park but also on other public land, including the Black Hills National Forest. The public agencies send firefighters out to eliminate the piles with controlled burns when there is snow cover to prevent the controlled burns from spreading.
State officials connected with Custer State Park declined to be interviewed for this story, citing the potential for litigation arising from the Legion Lake Fire. For a separate and broader perspective on the management of slash piles, the Journal interviewed Todd Pechota, acting deputy supervisor of the Black Hills National Forest.
Pechota said there are currently about 5,600 piles on Black Hills National Forest land, and the agency burns about 3,325 piles per year. Keeping up with pile-burning is a never-ending job in one of the country’s most actively logged national forests.
“I can assure you that someplace, somewhere on the Black Hills National Forest, a new machine pile is being constructed as we speak,” Pechota said.
The location of the piles is predetermined as part of the contracts awarded to loggers, and the proximity to power lines is one of numerous factors considered.
“I’m not saying piles couldn’t be in close proximity to a power line,” Pechota said, “but we typically try to avoid it.”
Tactics, resources and tankers
As the fire spread during the first few hours after it ignited, there was a need for more firefighters and equipment. According to Clabo, those resources were not as easy to gather up as they would have been during the busier summertime fire season.
Some wildfire-fighting specialists known as Hotshots were not under contract, Clabo said, while Forest Service engines were not fully staffed and seasonal firefighting employees had been released for the winter.
“So we were pulling in resources from all across the region, all across the area,” Clabo said. Those resources included volunteer and professional fire departments from area communities, and other firefighters from state and federal agencies.
Former wildland firefighter Bill Gabbert made similar comments on his Wildfire Today blog, which is published from the Black Hills and is well-read within the wildland firefighting community.
“Finding enough firefighting resources for a large fire in South Dakota in December is very difficult,” Gabbert wrote. “The very large Thomas Fire burning hundreds of thousands of Southern California acres could have complicated the process of ordering out-of-region fire suppression resources.”
Nevertheless, by about 4 p.m. on the first day of the Legion Lake Fire, the firefighting force had grown to a reported 200 personnel while the fire itself had grown to 2,500 acres.
Rather than try to put out the flames, firefighters used a common wildfire-fighting strategy and tried to contain the fire within an area where it could burn itself out. That included digging lines and purposefully torching some areas ahead of the fire’s footprint, to create a fuel-free containment boundary.
The firefighters dug their lines far beyond the fire — 1 to 4 miles ahead of it, according to an analysis by Gabbert. The plan, Gabbert wrote, was to let the fire grow to about 16,000 acres within the containment area.
Command of the firefighting effort came under the authority of the Rocky Mountain Blue Team, a roster of fire officials from various state and federal agencies. Travis Lipp, an operation section chief for the team, explained the chosen strategy in a public video posted to Facebook on the afternoon of the fire’s second day, Dec. 12.
Lipp said the fire had burned into Custer State Park’s French Creek Natural Area, which is a particularly rugged and densely forested part of the park where it would have been difficult to extract firefighters who encountered danger.
“That’s why we’re looking to back off and fight this fire on our terms and put in containment lines where we feel we’ll be successful,” Lipp said in the video.
Lipp also said there were two heavy air tankers — planes that drop red fire retardant — at Rapid City that were not being utilized.
By late afternoon of that second day, the fire was still only a reported 4,000 acres, or about 6 square miles. Then, that night, stronger-than-expected wind gusts fanned the fire and sent it on a nearly 45,000-acre run, beyond the intended containment area. Rural residents east of the park were evacuated, as were residents of the communities of Fairburn and Buffalo Gap.
An air tanker was called in on the fire’s third day to drop retardant around the edges of the fire. That day, Dec. 13, Lipp explained in another public Facebook video why the air tankers were not used sooner.
“We didn’t have the conditions,” he said, referring to high winds, “and where the fire activity was, we didn’t have the resources in place where it would’ve been effective to put retardant down and then go in and follow behind the retardant with resources.”
Over the next several days, weather conditions grew more favorable, and the fire was finally fully contained Dec. 19. About 300 personnel were on hand at the peak of the firefight, and the fire’s final footprint was 54,023 acres, or 84 square miles. The leading edge of the fire was about 18 miles southeast of where it began.
Wudtke, of the timber-industry trade association, was critical of the tactics used to fight the fire.
“This strategy implemented on the Legion Lake Fire, of backing off great distances from fires and lighting backburns, is part of a larger national problem,” Wudtke said. “Nobody wants any firefighters hurt or killed, but there must be greater recognition of natural resource concerns and property ownership.”
Authorities with the Wildland Fire Division of the state Department of Agriculture declined interview requests for this story and instead supplied a written comment: “Our first priority is always the protection of human lives, followed by the protection of people’s homes. Our firefighters accomplished both those objectives on the Legion Lake Fire.”
Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of the start of the Legion Lake fire, the third-largest wildfire in recorded Black Hills history. It be…
Ranchers feel the burn
Homes and lives were indeed protected, but some other buildings were destroyed. Some livestock died, and pastures and fence posts were burned.
Some of the pasture grass was burned not by the wildfire itself, but by firefighters as they torch-lit grass to eliminate fuel ahead of the fire’s advance.
That approach angered some ranchers, including Randy Schroth. When the leading edge of the wildfire approached some of the land he ranches in the Buffalo Gap area, he gathered up fellow ranchers who had pickup-mounted tanks, plus firefighters from area volunteer departments, and went out to fight the flames with water.
Schroth was relatively unconcerned about the grass that had already been grazed during the summer, but he had hoped to save about 400 acres of grass that was reserved for his cattle to graze during the winter.
He eventually encountered firefighters torching his reserved winter grass.
“I’m sure you wouldn’t want to print that,” he said.
By the time the wildfire was fully contained, Schroth had lost not only his winter grass, but also one bull and lots of fence.
He appreciated the efforts of some firefighters from state and federal agencies who tried to work closely with him to protect his land and property. But he said there were other firefighters on the federal-state team who did not seem to care what damage he suffered.
Schroth said he was out among the firefighters continuously and had a radio, and he wishes there could have been better communication and coordination regarding the burns that firefighters conducted. If that had happened, Schroth said, he might have been able to show them other places to burn that could have saved his winter grass.
“It’s not the last fire we’re going to have,” Schroth said, “and we need to come into an understanding with these guys so we can work together rather than apart.”