Telephone company says Legion Lake Fire was caused by “act of God”

The 54,000-acre fire became the third largest in the recorded history of South Dakota

Legion Lake Fire
Legion Lake Fire December 12, 2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A telephone company that is being sued by landowners for allegedly causing the Legion Lake Fire claims the 54,000-acre fire was caused by an “act of God”.

There is no question that a tree falling on a Black Hills Energy power line created sparks which ignited the fire December 11, 2017 in Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Three families claim in the lawsuit that Mt. Rushmore Telephone Company weakened the root system of the Ponderosa pine by digging a utility trench, making it less resistant to strong winds which were present when the fire started.

Below are excerpts from an article in the Rapid City Journal:

In its response, attorneys for Black Hills Energy deny almost everything in the pleading documents, save that a tree fell on a company power line. BHE contests their liability and suggests the plaintiffs themselves should be viewed as equally if not more guilty for their damage in the Legion Lake Fire. 
“Plaintiffs failed to mitigate their damages,” attorneys for Black Hills Energy write, “and any damages resulting from Plaintiffs’ failure to mitigate their damages may not be recovered.”
Mt. Rushmore Telephone Company’s response is even shorter, arguing the Legion Lake Fire was “the result of an act of God.”

The 10,000 acres of private land that burned in the fire is used for raising cattle and many land owners lost pastures, fences, and winter hay.

More than half of the portion of Custer State Park that was available for their bison herd burned, and park officials asked for hay donations to help the animals get through the winter. Over 8,000 acres of Wind Cave National Park also burned in the Legion Lake Fire and in the earlier Rankin Fire, but park spokesperson Tom Farrell said they still had plenty of forage in reserve for the 260 elk and 350 bison.

Legion Lake Fire
Legion Lake Fire, December 13, 2018. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Vineyard Fire may have been caused by flare gun

Vineyard Fire hot springs south dakota
Vineyard Fire at approximately 6:30 p.m. MDT August 11, 2018. Photo by Wendee Pettis.

A juvenile with a flare gun may have ignited the Vineyard Fire that burned 560 acres at Hot Springs, South Dakota.

According to a cause and origin report completed by fire investigator Jeff McBraw, a 16-year old girl “…stated that her boyfriend who is also a juvenile possibly started this fire with a flare gun,” McGraw wrote.

The Fall River County Sheriff’s Office will handle any further investigation.

The fire started August 11 near an abandoned vineyard and caused evacuations on the east side of Hot Springs.

Wrapping up the Vineyard Fire

Above: On August 12 firefighters initiated burnouts as they constructed fireline. This can remove unburned vegetation between the line and the fire. Photo by William Ing.

With the heavy rain that hit the Hot Springs, South Dakota area Wednesday the threat from the Vineyard Fire has greatly diminished, with residents reporting around an inch of precipitation. On Tuesday the firefighters stopped providing updates on the Facebook page created for the fire and an entry was never made on InciWeb — indications that the firefighting activities have slowed.

But rain can’t completely extinguish a wildfire that involves timber. Roots can smolder underground for weeks or months and burning logs don’t always go out by simply applying water from above.

Vineyard Fire map
Map of the Vineyard Fire.

According to the last official update from Great Plains Fire Information on August 14 the fire had burned 560 acres, all evacuations had been lifted, and the cause was still under investigation.

William Ing took these photos on August 11 and 12 from Butler Park and the Dairy Queen in Hot Springs. Thanks William!

Vineyard Fire Blackhawk helicopter
An Air National Guard Blackhawk helicopter drops water adjacent to onlooking firefighters (lower right).

Map of the Vineyard Fire


Vineyard Fire at Hot Springs, SD grows to 468 acres

Above: The Vineyard Fire near Hot Springs, South Dakota, August 11, 2018. Photo by Kathleen Ryan Anderson.

(UPDATED at 4:08 p.m. MDT August 13, 2018)

The incident management team has lifted all evacuations on the Vineyard Fire at Hot Springs, South Dakota, including all pre-evacuation notices.

The outlook for the fire has improved so much that the order for the higher level incident management team, the Type 2 team, has been cancelled.

Updated mapping shows that today, August 13, the fire has burned 560 acres. Fire officials estimate it will be fully contained on Friday, August 17.

No injuries have been recorded and no structures have been destroyed.

Firefighters have been taking advantage of cooler temperatures and higher humidities to slow the spread of the fire. In addition to the dozers that are constructing fire line, the team is waiting for additional hand crews to arrive so they can put in line where the dozers can’t work.

(UPDATED at 8 p.m. MDT August 12, 2018)

With the Vineyard Fire spreading further to the north and closer to dense residential areas, Sunday afternoon fire officials issued a “pre-evacuation notice” for homes on the east side of Hot Springs, SD affecting 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th streets all the way north to the Veterans Administration Hospital. Then minutes later it was upgraded to a full mandatory evacuation. About two hours after that at 6:45 p.m. all mandatory evacuation notices were lifted by Incident Commander Ray Bubb, including not only the most recents ones on 3rd through 6th streets, but all of the others along Fall River Road. As of Sunday evening the areas have been downgraded to a pre-evacuation notice status, fire spokesperson Joe Johndreau told us at 7:40 p.m. Sunday.

hot springs Vineyard fire evacuation
This is an unofficial map showing the approximate area in Hot Springs, SD that for a while Sunday afternoon, August 12, was under an evacuation notice. It has since been downgraded to a pre-evacuation notice. Click to enlarge.

The Fall River Sheriff’s Office wrote on their Facebook page:

The Evacuation Order has been lifted for all residences including those in city limits as well as the Eagle Valley area. Please keep your bags at the ready incase there are any changes.

It can happen, but it is unusual for an area near a fire to go, within a three-hour period, from no evacuation, to pre-evacuation, to full evacuation, and back to pre-evacuation status. We asked Mr. Johndreau about the reason for the changes. He said Incident Commander Ray Bubb said that the firefighters had a very good day Sunday and accomplished so much that it became safe for the residents to return to their homes.

Mr. Johndreau said Air Attack, who spent hours circling over the fire in a fixed wing aircraft, estimated Sunday evening that the fire has grown to 468 acres.

In addition to the Air Attack ship, other fixed wing aircraft on the fire Sunday included two Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) and one four-engine jet, Tanker 41, a BAe-146 operated by Neptune Aviation. There was also at least one Air National Guard Blackhawk helicopter and, Mr. Johndreau said, possibly other helicopters.

On Sunday the fire was managed by a Type 3 Incident Management Team, but a higher-qualified Type 2 Team has been ordered. The main differences between the teams is that the members of a Type 2 team have more experience and have to meet more stringent qualification requirements. The Type 2 Team is also larger by a factor of two or three and will arrive with more overhead personnel than the Type 3 Team had. They don’t come with firefighters or firefighting equipment, except for the organization structure of managers in the Operations Section, including Division Supervisors, Operations Section Chiefs, and aviation managers. The actual on-the-ground-firefighters will need to be ordered with the same process the Type 3 Team was using. The next level up is a Type 1 Team — a Type 2 Team on steroids.

(UPDATED at 12:42 p.m. MDT August 12, 2018)

The Vineyard Fire southeast of Hot Springs, SD grew by about 50 acres Saturday night, primarily on the east side, to bring the total to about 180 burned acres. More firefighting resources are expected to be available Sunday.

The areas under evacuation orders are listed at the Fall River County website.

Fall River Road (Hwy 18/385) is open but fire officials are asking residents to avoid the area if possible.

The map below shows the APPROXIMATE location of the Vineyard Fire, based on satellite data from 3:13 a.m. August 12. The fire could have spread through light vegetation on the top of the hill, such as grass, and then cooled making it impossible for the heat sensors on the satellite to detect the fire at those locations. The satellite is on a polar orbit and passes over twice a day.

map Vineyard fire
This 3-D map shows the APPROXIMATE location of the Vineyard Fire at 3:13 a.m. MDT August 12, 2018. It is based on data from a satellite orbiting 200 miles overhead. With this system the location cannot be precisely determined. Click to enlarge.

Weather forecasters have added the southern Black Hills to Sunday’s Red Flag Warnings, for hot, dry, and breezy conditions. The forecast for the fire area on Sunday predicts 93 degrees, 18 percent relative humidity, and 19 mph south winds gusting to 27. These conditions could result in fire behavior that challenges firefighters.

(We initially received incorrect information about who took the photo at the top of this article. We now know it was taken by Kathleen Ryan Anderson. We apologize for the confusion.)

(UPDATED at 10:55 p.m. MDT August 11, 2018)

By 8 p.m. Saturday the Vineyard Fire southeast of Hot Springs, SD had burned approximately 130 acres and was spreading north.

Late in the afternoon a second single engine air tanker and a large air tanker joined the fight, making retardant drops to assist firefighters on the ground who were protecting structures. Fire officials expect to have a helicopter and a Type 3 Incident Management Team working on the fire Sunday.

The Fall River County Sheriff’s Office is requesting evacuees to go to the Mueller Center in Hot Springs.

Vineyard Fire, August 11, 2018
Vineyard Fire, August 11, 2018. Photo by Martin Volunteer Fire Department.

The high temperature at Wind Cave National Park north of Hot Springs on Saturday was 93, the relative humidity reached 21 percent, and the winds were 8 to 12 mph out of the south with gusts to 22. The forecast for the fire area calls for Saturday night temperatures to get down to 63 with 52 percent relative humidity and 10 mph south to southwest winds gusting to 14. On Sunday forecasters expect 95 degrees, 16 percent humidity, and south winds of 16 mph gusting to 25. Much of northwest South Dakota is in a Red Flag Warning area on Sunday, but most of the Black Hills, including the fire area, are outside the warning area.

(Updated at 6:48 p.m. MDT August 11, 2018)

A wildfire half a mile southeast of Hot Springs, South Dakota started at about 3:45 p.m. MDT August 11 and spread rapidly up slope above Fall River Road. It was attacked by local, state, and federal firefighters and a single engine air tanker that responded from Chadron, Nebraska.

Firefighters estimate it has burned approximately 80 acres and is threatening 70 structures. They have requested

It has been a rather quiet wildland fire season so far this year in South Dakota. Until today.

Resa Ru shot this video of the Vineyard Fire along Fall River Road about half a mile southeast of Hot Springs, South Dakota, August 11, 2018. Used with permission.

We will update this article when more information is available.

Vineyard Fire hot springs south dakota
Vineyard Fire at approximately 6:30 p.m. MDT August 11, 2018. Photo by Wendee Pettis.

map Vineyard Fire hot springs south dakota
This is a very rough approximation of the location of the Vineyard Fire southeast of Hot Springs, SD.

Thanks Resa, Kathleen, and Wendee!

Wildlife triggers trail cam, creating time-lapse of green-up after wildfire

The Legion Lake Fire burned 54,000 acres of Custer State Park in South Dakota in December, 2017.

bison trail cam fire
Image from the trail camera.

A trail camera was activated on April 4 in Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota in the area that burned in the 54,000-acre Legion Lake Fire that started on December 11, 2017. The device was activated by movement, so wildlife wandering by triggered the shooting of several still images, giving us a time-lapse of green-up following the fire.

Below are photos we shot of the fire in December.

Legion Lake Fire South Dakota custer state park
Legion Lake Fire on December 11, 2017, the day it started in Custer State Park in South Dakota.

Legion Lake Fire South Dakota custer state park
Legion Lake Fire, December 12, 2017.

Legion Lake Fire South Dakota custer state park
Legion Lake Fire, December 14, 2017.

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.

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 or 701.252.2017. They can also visit Farm Rescue’s website to make an online monetary donation.