Legion Lake Fire’s effect on bison and ranches

Almost 10,000 acres of private land burned in the fire

Above: One of the private ranches on Lame Johnny Road affected by the Legion Lake Fire.

(Originally published at 3:00 p.m. MST December 19, 2017.)

The Legion Lake Fire that burned over 54,000 acres in the Southern Black Hills of South Dakota is 100 percent contained and is just about wrapped up in regards to fire suppression.

But some of the effects will linger on for many months. Fences are being repaired, the entire burro herd in Custer State Park of nine animals is being treated for burns, and private landowners are assessing their losses.

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Workers repair a fence in Custer State Park damaged by the Legion Lake Fire. Photo credit: Custer State Park.

More than half of the portion of Custer State Park that is available for their bison herd burned in the fire, and park officials are asking for hay donations to help the animals get through the winter. (Scroll down to see donation information.) Over 8,000 acres of Wind Cave National Park burned in this fire and in September’s Rankin Fire, but park spokesperson Tom Farrell said they still have plenty of forage in reserve for the 260 elk and 350 bison.

Map Legion Lake Fire
Map of the Legion Lake Fire. Click to enlarge.

Almost 10,000 acres of private land primarily used for ranching burned in the fire east of the two parks and west of Highway 79.

One of the strategies used by the Type 2 Incident Management Team was to conduct large-scale burnouts, often from roads some distance from the fire. The fire started Monday December 11, and their plan on Tuesday when the fire was 4,000 acres, was to quadruple the size to 15,000 to 16,000 acres by burning out one to four miles out ahead of the blaze. Strong winds Tuesday night blew the fire past the roads targeted in that strategy. After the rapid expansion the IMT had to choose other roads from which to burnout, which in some cases were also a significant distance from the fire.

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Firefighters burning out along Highway 87 on the Legion Lake Fire Wednesday December 13, 2017.

On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday the Incident Management Team (IMT) conducted burnouts in several areas from roads and trails in both parks and on the private land to the east which is primarily used for ranching.  This had the effect of containing those sections of the perimeter perhaps more quickly than it could have been done if direct lines on the fire’s edge were constructed by hand crews, engines with water, or by using dozers, but in some cases it burned grass, pastures, and acres that would not have been lost with direct firelines.

Finding enough firefighting resources for a large fire in South Dakota in December is very difficult. 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.  In addition to numerous engines, including at least one from New Mexico, the IMT only had portions of three local hand crews.

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Two large air tankers arrived at the Rapid City Air Tanker Base late in the day on Monday, the day the fire started. They were not used Monday or Tuesday, and made five drops Wednesday on the south end of the fire north of the 7-11 Road. The 3,000-gallon air tankers were not used after that. The two planes were not available at the same time for part of their assignment at Rapid City. The RJ85, Tanker 163, had a mechanical issue on Tuesday and was down for a few hours, and the MD-87, Tanker 101, was on a mandatory day off Thursday.

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Retardant drop on the Legion Lake Fire, Wednesday December 13, 2017 by Tanker 101, an MD-87. Photo by Rob Powell.

We asked Rob Powell, the Incident Commander on the IMT, about burnouts that were used on the east side of the fire, including private land, Wednesday afternoon through Friday.

We tried to keep it from going east any farther. There were some burnouts off highway 79 to strengthen 79… Once it crossed the Wildlife Loop [Road in Custer State Park] our next line of defense was 79 and didn’t want it to get any farther down French Creek, Lame Johnny and all that stuff.

We realized that in order to save grass we were going to sacrifice some but we tried to do as minimal as we possibly could.

Legion Lake Fire South Dakota
Private land on Lame Johnny Road affected by the Legion Lake Fire.

Silvia Christen, Executive Director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, has been in contact with some of the ranchers in the nearly 10,000 acres of private land that burned. She said:

Landowners have lost quite a bit of grass, and that is their grazing for the winter, of course. A lot of hay bales burned up which many ranchers had to purchase this year because of the drought conditions and now they will have to purchase more to replace the hay that was lost.

There has been some concern that in some instances or in quite a few instances especially on the eastern edge of the fire that when the wind had gone down — clearly when it blew up Tuesday night there was very little that could be done — but by Wednesday and Thursday and the fire was relatively under control we’re getting reports that some of the local volunteer departments had extinguished the fire and it was relit in order to burn off certain areas that were on private land. I think that once emotions calm down about the whole situation and we can take a good look at it I think we need to have some discussions about how those decisions were made.

Individuals who wish to donate hay to those impacted by the fire should contact Farm Rescue at info@farmrescue.org or 701.252.2017. They can also visit Farm Rescue’s website to make an online monetary donation.

Missing burros affected by Legion Lake Fire found

Above: file photo of one of the burros in Custer State Park, September 13, 2017.

(Originally published at 2:30 p.m. MST December 16, 2017)

All of the burros in Custer State Park have been found. During the first few days after the Legion Fire started in Custer State Park the staff had their hands full fighting the fire which ultimately burned over 54,000 acres. The small herd of burros that are beloved by tourists at first could not be found, then about half were located, and today the park announced that all nine of them are alive. The bad news is that all of the burros were injured in the fire. After consultation with a veterinarian, the staff decided to treat them, but “due to the nature of the burn injuries we will not know the outcome of the burros”, the park said in a statement.

Articles on Wildfire Today about the Legion Lake Fire are tagged “Legion Lake Fire”.

The burros are very tame and will come up to a parked car. They have been known to poke their head through open car windows hoping to get a carrot or a Cheeto. A Google image search illustrates this behavior.

In better news, a light layer of snow covers the fire which, the park announced Saturday, is “close to being fully under containment.

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Snow on the Legion Lake Fire, December 16, 2017. Custer State Park photo.
Map Legion Lake Fire
Map of the Legion Lake Fire, December 15, 2017.

Update on Legion Lake Fire in the Black Hills

Above: The Legion Lake Fire off Lame Johnny Road in the southern portion of the fire not far from Highway 79 December 14, 2017.

(Originally published at 2:42 p.m. MST December 15, 2017)

Firefighters are beginning to get a handle on the Legion Lake Fire burning in the Black Hills of South Dakota in both Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park. After conducting burnout operations on the east and west sides, and corralling a slopover on the southwest corner, the Incident Management Team (IMT) reports that the fire now totals 53,875 acres.

Articles on Wildfire Today about the Legion Lake Fire are tagged “Legion Lake Fire”.

Mop up will continue through the weekend and some resources are being released. The Type 2 IMT expects to transition back to a local Type 3 IMT by Saturday. Highways 16A and 87 remain closed due to the threat of falling trees. The two air tankers were released but the the Type 3 helicopter remains on scene for aerial recon.

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Map of the Legion Lake Fire. The red dots on the west side represent heat detected by a satellite at 2:12 a.m. MST December 15, 2017.

The aerial photo below shows the northeast corner of the fire during burnout operations late in the day on December 13, with helpful notes to identify landmarks. Click on it a couple of times to see a larger version.

Now that the spread of the fire has been halted, at least temporarily, Custer State Park has been able to reassign some of their staff to assessing the wildlife. Here is what they reported Friday afternoon:

The majority of our bison herd has been discovered and we are currently in the process of gathering them up and assessing them. The majority of our pronghorn, elk and deer herds have also been located and visually appear to be doing well. We found half of our burro herd and they were the animals that were most impacted by the fire. They are currently being evaluated by veterinarians for an overall health check. We will continue to look for the remainder of the burro herd, but at this time it is believed they did not survive the extreme fire growth from Tuesday night.

The weather Saturday and Saturday night should help slow down the fire even more, with an 80 percent chance of an inch of snow. The high temperatures on Saturday and Sunday will be in the 30s.

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Seen at the Incident Command Post December 13, 2017.
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The Legion Lake Fire December 13, 2017. IMT photo.
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The Legion Lake Fire December 13, 2017. IMT photo.

Firefighters on Legion Lake Fire shift to mop-up

Above: the Legion Lake Fire off Lame Johnny Road near Highway 79.

(Originally published at 4:44 p.m. MST December 14, 2017)

The primary emphasis on the Legion Lake Fire in the Southern Black Hills of South Dakota is shifting from line construction and burning out to mop-up. On Thursday some areas were still being being burned out to secure a few sections of the perimeter, but most of the firefighters were locating and suppressing anything that is still burning close enough to the edge of the fire to be a potential threat to cross the fireline.

The Incident Management Team is calling the fire 47,312 acres, but that could change if more accurate mapping becomes available. That size puts it on the list as the third largest wildfire in recorded history of the Black Hills.

We have been hearing for several days that the cause was a fallen power line and that has been confirmed.

Articles on Wildfire Today about the Legion Lake Fire are tagged “Legion Lake Fire”.

It was overcast and windy at the fire Thursday with north winds gusting at 12 to 20 mph. They should subside Thursday night but resume on Friday blowing from the west at 15 gusting to 20 mph under mostly sunny skies. Saturday will bring a 50 percent chance of a small amount of precipitation, about 0.05″ of rain or less than an inch of snow.

All evacuation orders have been lifted. Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park are closed to the public, except in Wind Cave the roads that are still open include Hwy. 385, Hwy 87, and Beaver Creek Road (across from the fire lookout tower). In Custer State Park portions of Highways 16A and 87 are still closed.

The RJ85 air tanker that was at Rapid City has gone back to California and the other, an MD-87, is on her day off today. The lead plane has also departed, so it appears that the remaining air tanker will probably be released when it returns to duty Friday.

On Thursday we shot the photos below on Lame Johnny Road in the southern portion of the fire not far from Highway 79. Click on the photos to see larger versions.

Driving through the Legion Lake Fire

After leaving the Incident Command Post at the Legion Lake Fire December 13, 2017 I recorded part of the journey along Hwy 16A back to Highway 79 in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The fire has burned about 47,000 acres as of December 13, 2017. You will see patches of snow on the side of the road and at 5:46, deer.

Articles on Wildfire Today about the Legion Lake Fire are tagged “Legion Lake Fire”.

Legion Lake Fire spreads out of state park to Highway 79

Tuesday night the fire mushroomed to about 40,000 acres

The Legion Lake Fire December 13, 2017
The Legion Lake Fire December 13, 2017 along Hwy 16A.

(UPDATED at 8 p.m. MST December 13, 2017)

The north end of the Legion Lake Fire did not move much Wednesday because much of it, especially after burnout operations, is bordered by highways — 87 and 16A. In addition, the northwest wind tends to keep it from spreading north or west.

Articles on Wildfire Today about the Legion Lake Fire are tagged “Legion Lake Fire”.

At least one large air tanker dropped five loads of retardant on the south end of the fire Wednesday near Fusion Canyon. At about 5 p.m. the fire spotted across the retardant but a dozer and engine crews were able to stop the additional spread north of 7-11 Road.

tanker 101 retardant drop legion lake fire
Retardant drop on the Legion Lake Fire, December 13, 2017 by Tanker 101, an MD-87. Photo by Rob Powell.

Burnout operations continue near Blue Bell Lodge, the State Game Lodge, and near the dormitories at the northeast end of the Wildlife Loop.

On Wednesday a firefighter experienced a medical condition and was transported off the fire by a Lifeflight helicopter. No other information is available.

The incident Management Team reported Wednesday afternoon that the fire has burned 47,312 acres. That figure is based on a very rough, quick and dirty map of the perimeter. If the fire does not grow very much after Wednesday afternoon, it is likely that the acreage figure will decrease when there is time for more accurate mapping.

The weather forecast for Thursday still features strong north-northwest winds of 13 to 21 mph gusting near 30 with the relative humidity mostly in the 40s. The next significant chance for precipitation will be Saturday — 40 percent chance of receiving about 0.03″ of rain or 0.2″ of snow.

A large proportion of Custer State Park has burned (I’m guessing 30 to 60 percent), and the park is asking for hay donations.

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Below, is an update on the fire, December 13 at 2:00 p.m., from Travis Lipp, Operations Section Chief on the Rocky Mountain Blue Team.

Today after leaving the Incident Command Post I recorded a video of part of the journey along Hwy 16A; “Driving through the Legion Lake Fire”.


(UPDATED at 12:32 p.m. MST December 13, 2017)


(Updated at 11:23 a.m. MST December 13, 2017)

The Legion Lake Fire exploded across Custer County in South Dakota Tuesday night burning out of Custer State Park, through the east side of Wind Cave National Park, and reaching Highway 79 before the forward progress was halted by firefighters working through the cold, windy night.

Articles on Wildfire Today about the Legion Lake Fire are tagged “Legion Lake Fire”.

The fire was pushed by predicted strong winds gusting well over 35 mph out of the north-northwest. Combined with relative humidity in the teens and twenties the fire spread quickly past the Blue Bell Lodge, French Creek Horse Camp and down Lame Johnny Road in the middle of the night. Evacuations were ordered in those areas as well as Buffalo Gap and Fairburn. Some firefighters who were en route home after working on the fire all day were called back to protect structures. Numerous fire departments from across the Black Hills sent personnel and equipment in an effort, apparently successful, to save homes.

Highway 79, the main route from the south into Rapid City, was closed during the night and was still closed at 8:45 a.m and was open after 11 a.m.. Wednesday from Hermosa to Maverick Junction east of Hot Springs. The two dirt roads in Wind Cave National Park, NPS 5 (aka Red Valley Road) and NPS 6, are closed. Highway 87 is open in Wind Cave, but closed in Custer State Park. The portion of Highway 16A in the state park is also closed.

A gallery of 14 photos of the large air tankers at Rapid City that may be used on the fire is at Fire Aviation.

Jeni Lawver, a spokesperson for the Blue Type 2 Incident Management Team, said multiple outbuildings, but no residences, were destroyed. Firefighters were able to protect the structures at Blue Bell and the State Game Lodge. The IMT estimates the fire now encompases 35,000 acres but as of 8:15 a.m. they had not been able to accurately map the fire. Satellite data from 2:49 a.m. Wednesday indicates the approximate size is over 41,000 acres.

Today the two large air tankers that have been staged at Rapid City will be used if needed, Ms. Lawver said.

Photo gallery of scenes from the Legion Lake Fire, including a few of air tankers parked at Rapid City

As you can see in the map below,  by early Wednesday morning at 2:48 a.m. the fire had burned from the Legion Lake area to the southeast, across the Wildlife Loop Road and the northeast section of Wind Cave National Park, reaching Highway 79 about five miles north of Buffalo Gap. The Incident Management Team reported at 9 a.m. that overnight the fire continued to the south reaching the 7-11 road east of Buffalo Gap, but still remained west of Highway 79 thanks to successful burnouts conducted by firefighters working through the night.

Legion Lake Fire
The red line was the approximate perimeter of the Legion Lake Fire at 2:48 a.m. December 13, 2017 based on heat sensors aboard a satellite. The white line was the approximate perimeter about 24 hours before.

Ranchers lost some fences in the area but all of the boundary fence on the east side of Wind Cave NP has been replaced in recent years with metal — steel posts anchored in concrete. It could be problematic if the bison in Wind Cave escaped and mixed with cattle, potentially ruining the genetic purity of the animals in the park.

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The Legion Lake Fire burns through the east side of Wind Cave National Park at 12:07 a.m. MST December 13, 2017.

Wednesday morning a nearby weather station was still recording strong winds gusting at 22 to 30 mph out of the north. The forecast for the fire area predicts continued unfavorable weather for firefighters on Wednesday — 14 to 20 mph winds gusting out of the northwest at 20 to 29 mph with relative humidity in the 20s. The wind should decrease Wednesday night but resume early Thursday morning with gusts from the north above 30 mph and humidity in the 40s.

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