Custer City will gather January 18 to send the 2020 Burning Beetle back to whatever theoretical hell it came from. The “Vigilance” sculpture dedication, the fat tire bike race, variety show, torch march, bonfire, fireworks, bug crawl, and live music make the Burning beetle festival the most fun you can have in the Hills in mid-January, but it wasn’t always so. This seventh annual whimsical journey to find ways to deal with the shared trauma and powerlessness of the beetle epidemic turned into a celebration of resiliency and strength. Many grim years later.
The funeral pyre made of the slash and branches of the very trees the mountain pine beetle killed in such vast numbers is the engine of its annual destruction. The fire of the winter night is a perfect reflection of the thousands of similar fires burning across the Black Hills as we work to reduce the dead fuel from the epidemic. The embers of the symbolic fire echo the embers of the many fires in a satisfying homage and recognition of a the most significant forest disturbance event at the turn of the Century.
We burn the beetle for lots of reasons. It reminds us of the decades we fought the beetle, often with little to show for our efforts. The fire reminds us that mountain pine beetles and ips engraver beetles are here to stay and will return every 25 years, and then return en masse every 100 years. The bonfire is cathartic, a deeply satisfying way to express our solidarity against a common foe. It’s a wonderful way to stay warm, to gather with friends outside, to hear music and to laugh. Plus, it’s just fun to light stuff on fire. The Custer Volunteer Fire Department hosts the fireworks, their way of signaling that the 4th of July is not so far away.
Aerial scouts of the United States Forest Service first detected the beetle epidemic in 1997 up by Sturgis. Using old school mapping techniques, forest scientists flew for hours and days to record the dead trees and to try to estimate where the newly killed trees would show up next. It’s harder than it looks. Trees killed this year don’t turn red until next year. It’s frustrating. The map of the Black Hills National Forest turned redder and redder every year as Ken Marchand tracked the progress. The scope and scale of the path of destruction was epic and unprecedented for living people.
The last really significant bark beetle attack occurred in the late 1880s or 90s, and ended, like the current epidemic, near Custer. The toll of dead trees was astonishing in both events. Millions of mature trees died. Black Elk Wilderness was a war zone, then and now.
The good news is that the forest is resilient and the beetles are cyclical. The forest recovered and thrived, and will again. Very bright guys like Russ Graham and Mike Battaglia reviewed our war on the beetles and concluded that the epidemic ended in spite of our best efforts. Nothing we did really changed the course of the attack.
Local efforts garnered local results. I managed to keep my 25 trees alive by aggressive spraying. I personally marked 100s of thousands of trees for spraying, and people sprayed the most important trees including our oldest trees, to keep them alive. Many of them would have lived, spray or no spray, if we didn’t mind letting God choose the random survivors.
For whatever reason, the beetles finally gave up. Personally, I think it’s because they don’t like being burned in effigy. Come help us do it again next weekend.