Legion Lake Fire’s effect on bison and ranches

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

Legion Lake Fire South Dakota

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.

repair fence custer state fence
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.

Legion Lake Fire
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.

Photography Prints
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.

tanker 101 retardant drop legion lake fire
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.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

4 thoughts on “Legion Lake Fire’s effect on bison and ranches”

  1. How about a follow-up to this article?

    The burned grasslands in and around the Park are thriving, with a wet spring and lots of sunshine. Everything is bright green, now.

    It would make for some great comparison shots.

  2. Hi. Because airtankers aren’t close to RAP this time of year and they aren’t THE answer. I suppose the tankers would have been great the first day or two but when they arrived it was too late and the forecast showed full suppression should come shortly anyhow.
    I think that the fire was needed around the park though not exactly like this. Prescribed. The grounds will be better for it in the near future.
    Merry Christmas all. Keep the head movin’.

  3. I have followed the Custer State Park fire and it sounds to me like the fire was fought by a bunch of drips from the SDDGPF using drip torches and they contributed substantially to the fire at the cost of the wildlife. Disgusting!
    why weren’t fire lines started immediately along with the use of the air tankers?


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