The Legion Lake Fire
A column by Gov. Dennis Daugaard
December 29, 2017
There is no place like Custer State Park. Each year nearly 2 million people from all over the world come to see the buffalo, drive the wildlife loop, hike Lover’s Leap, fish on Legion Lake, and swim and kayak at Sylvan. The 72,000-acre getaway destination is home to the State Game Lodge – the historic building that President Calvin Coolidge used as his summer White House – and it is a place where memories are made.
Custer State Park employees could not have anticipated the events of the week ahead when they came to work on Monday, Dec. 11. That morning a call went out on the radio to relay that a fire had started near Legion Lake. As one staff member put it, “I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. Usually fires in December include a lot of mop up and just driving around.” But after arriving at the scene, it was clear this was going to be something entirely different.
Over the next two days, the weather conditions and terrain made things difficult. High winds, unseasonably warm temperatures, and dry conditions led the fire to grow to 54,000 acres, becoming the third largest recorded fire in the Black Hills.
We were very fortunate to have our own Type II Incident Command Team based in the Black Hills to lead the response. We could not have responded as quickly or as effectively without South Dakota Wildland Fire.
Professional and volunteer firefighters from all over the state and region responded. Local ranchers and Custer State Park staff all contributed. When high winds caused the fire to jump containment lines, firefighters, emergency responders, law enforcement and park staff went door-to-door to help families evacuate as the fire pressed at their heels. More than 340 firefighters worked that night, and in the days after, to protect primary structures. Their efforts helped abate the further spread of the fire into Wind Cave National Park, and limited damages to livestock feed, wildlife and timber. After containing the fire, they acted to mop up hotspots around Custer State Park facilities and to cut fire-weakened trees near roadways.
Thanks to the efforts of all involved, no lives were lost, no one was injured, and no homes or primary structures were lost. All 175 houses in the area were protected and the farmers, ranchers and local residents all had a home to which they could return for Christmas.
A fire can be healthy if it clears grass and undergrowth, and in many areas of the park, that’s what happened. Thankfully the buffalo herd and wildlife were largely unaffected. Custer State Park lost fencing, most of the winter pastures, and some stands of timber; but the recovery is well underway with fencing crews on site, hay purchases, and relocation of some of the buffalo to an unburned area.
The Legion Lake Fire could have been much, much worse, if not for the hard work and heroic efforts of our firefighters. It was South Dakota at its best – people from all across the state and region pulling together in a time of need. Thanks to the efforts of all involved, Custer State Park is open for business again. With good moisture, burned areas will turn emerald green next spring, as new grass emerges. By peak season, park staff will have the park in pristine condition, ready to give visitors the high-quality experience they have provided for decades.