Scott Wheeler knew the wind had come up Tuesday night when cellphones began chirping at the Legion Lake Fire command center in Custer State Park.
A division supervisor, he said, noticed an increasing glow from the southeastern sky where none had been seen earlier in the evening.
As the night went on, that glow would turn into one of the largest wildfires in modern Black Hills history, threatening homes, animals and everything else in its path.
More reports of a jump in fire activity came in to the fire command center, located at the park shop complex west of the State Game Lodge on U.S. Highway 16A.
“We could see a spot fire was really established and was really going to make a run toward our desired lines,” said Wheeler, from the Black Hills National Forest Hell Canyon Ranger District.
Then came the winds. Picking up with a vengeance earlier than expected, gusts of up to 33 mph blew nearly straight through French Creek Natural Area, already heavy with fire activity on Tuesday, carrying hot embers and igniting spot fires nearly a half-mile away to the west of the Wildlife Loop Road.
The growing spot fire jumped the Wildlife Loop Road and shot through private ranch pasture land between the park and S.D. Highway 79. Another spot fire by French Creek Horse Camp moved south-southeast through Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park, coming within two miles of the town of Buffalo Gap.
When the sun came up Wednesday morning and fire crews had a chance to survey the devastation, what they found was staggering: the Legion Lake Fire had grown from around 4,000 acres on Tuesday to more than 35,000 acres, or roughly 55 square miles.
By Wednesday evening, the total acreage burned stood at more than 47,000 acres. The fire is 10 percent contained, and a cause has not been determined.
While no one has been injured in the fire, 175 homes were ordered to evacuate Tuesday night because of the dangerous conditions. Included in the order were the small towns of Fairburn and Buffalo Gap and residents between the park and Highway 79 to the east.
A majority did heed the call to leave, scrambling to load pickup-drawn livestock trailers with cattle and horses, according to Custer State Park ranger Jim Ganser.
“The neat thing was there was a lot of neighbor helping neighbor, which is what they do around here,” Ganser said.
According to a release from the Legion Lake Fire Information Center, firefighters made a stand along Highway 79, successfully setting burnouts along the west side of the highway north of Maverick Junction to help stall the fire’s advance.
The highway was reopened to traffic by late morning on Wednesday, with residents of Fairburn, Buffalo Gap and those living along Tatanka Spirit Road west of Highway 79 allowed to return home later that afternoon.
The fast-moving flames left a desolate, blackened landscape in its wake. Twenty-five bridges were either destroyed or threatened, and the fire also caused significant damage to three watersheds and other infrastructure in Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park.
Evident throughout the east and southeast side of Custer State Park were signs of entire stands of trees going up in flames, called torching, and flames jumping from treetop-to treetop called crowning.
Highway barrier posts and fence posts also burned.
Much of the smoke visible in the central part of the park came from burnout operations designed to remove tinder-dry brown grasses and small trees near the State Game Lodge as a means of protecting the historic structure from an active run of the fire.
Sections of Highway 16A through the park, expected to remain closed through at least Friday, were obscured by heavy smoke from burnouts set on Tuesday.
After a relatively calm Wednesday evening, firefighters are bracing for more windy conditions Thursday with gusts up to 40 mph, a bad combination for wildfires when combined with extraordinarily dry conditions for December, Wheeler said.
The best chance for precipitation won't come until Saturday, when cooler air will move into the area bringing more moisture and the chance for snow, said Scott Rudge, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Rapid City.
Usually, this time of year the ground inside the park is covered in snow, but instead "we're brown," Wheeler said. "There’s no green component to any of the fuels. We’re having atypical weather patterns because of these sustained high velocity winds day after day after day. Conditions are kind of tough for the guys out there.”
State asks for help from FEMA
The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced Wednesday that it has approved a request from the state to use federal funds to help with firefighting costs associated with the Legion Lake Fire.
According to a news release, FEMA funding will be available to pay 75 percent of the state's eligible firefighting costs.
"Emergency management and wild land fire staff were in communication with FEMA and made the request at governor’s direction," said Tony Venhuizen, Daugaard's chief of staff, in an email.
The grants do not provide assistance to home or business owners.
School closes, mail delivery suspended
Meanwhile, Hermosa School suspended classes Wednesday until further notice.
The Custer School District superintendent made the decision since the evacuees included Hermosa School’s students and teachers, and because part of S.D. Highway 79 that led to the school was closed Tuesday night, said school principal Lori Enright. Highway 79 was reopened as of Wednesday afternoon.
On Tuesday, smoke from the wildfire grew so strong and blew toward Hermosa School, causing physical discomfort to some students and teachers. The K-8 school sent some students home, decided to cancel its outside recess that day and a basketball game that night, Enright said.
Fifteen miles to the south, in nearby Fairburn, mail delivery was suspended because of the Legion Lake Fire, according to a release from the U.S. Postal Service.
The post office is closed and operations will be adjusted until conditions improve, the release said.
Fairburn has a population of around 85, and the local post office delivers service to 59 people and 52 PO boxes. Retail services are available at the Hermosa Post Office, where customers can also pick up with their mail with a valid ID.
Journal staff writer Tiffany Tan contributed to this report.