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.

Photography Prints

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.

Legion Lake Fire
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.

Art Prints

Legion Lake Fire photo gallery

These photos were taken by Bill Gabbert December 12 at the Legion Lake Fire east of Custer, South Dakota — except, the air tankers were at the Air Tanker Base at Rapid City Regional Airport the same day, and the last photo was taken just after midnight, at 12:07 a.m. MST December 13, 2017. And, one of the photos of Legion Lake was taken by Marion Muhm in 2016. All images are ©

Click on the pictures to see larger versions. Captions are at top-left.

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

A sign of spring

One of the signs of spring is when the bison calves start appearing in Wind Cave National Park. Tuesday evening I found one of the new arrivals — part of a herd of about 20 cows. A few of them watched me closely as I took photos with my telephoto lens. I assume they are all very protective of the vulnerable little creatures.

Bison cow and calf

And as a bonus, the sunset tonight was better than average.

sunset wind cave NP


Photos of the Cold Fire in the Black Hills

Above: The rocky ridge just west of the Cold Springs School along Flynn Creek Road.

These photos of the Cold Fire in the Black Hills of South Dakotawere taken by Bill Gabbert April 2 and 4, 2016. By April 3 the fire had burned about 1,300 acres, Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park, and the Black Hills National Forest north of Hot Springs.

Much more information about the fire is in our main article.

Fire Aviation has photos and more information about the helicopters assigned to the fire.

Cold Fire
Operations Section Chief Todd Hoover being interviewed by Rapid City media.
Cold Fire
A firefighter demonstrates suppressing a fire with water.
Cold Fire
Firefighters at a dozer line just outside Wind Cave National Park on the southeast side of the Cold Fire.

Continue reading “Photos of the Cold Fire in the Black Hills”

Report released for escaped prescribed fire in Wind Cave NP

Cold Brook Fire April 13, 2015
Cold Brook Prescribed Fire April 13, 2015, shortly after it escaped, crossing Highway 385. This is looking northwest. Photo by Benjamin Carstens (click to enlarge)

The National Park Service has released a “Facilitated Learning Analysis” (FLA) for the prescribed fire that escaped in Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota April 13, 2015. The Cold Brook prescribed fire spotted almost 200 feet across U.S. Highway 385 burning an unplanned 5,420 acres beyond the 1,000 acres planned, all within the boundaries of the park. There were no injuries and no structures or private property burned. (In the interest of full disclosure, for five years the writer of this article was the Fire Management Officer for the NPS’ Northern Great Plains Fire Management Group which includes Wind Cave NP.)

Overturned ATV Cold Brook RxDuring the suppression action an all terrain vehicle with two people on board overturned. It was destroyed immediately by the approaching fire as the firefighters “jogged side-slope away from the fire until they had sufficient visibility to see their escape route safely into the black.” The line gear belonging to one of the two firefighters was consumed in the fire, since he did not have time to retrieve it from the tipped-over vehicle as the fire bore down.

The 72-hour preliminary report on the incident stated that the FLA would be “due to the NPS Midwest Regional Director by May 29, 2015”. The report that was released through the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center is dated today.

The document, which you can download here (9 Mb), is long (62 pages of small font) and quite thorough. It delves deeply, very deeply, into the on site weather and long term weather records, as expected, and explores in detail the use of ATVs on prescribed burns and wildfires. In addition to discussion of the fire-related aspects of the analysis, the four writers, from the National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Forest Service, recommended that the “Technology and Development” program develop a wildland fire standard for equipment, configuration and performance of motorized off-highway vehicles.

The report includes a link to a time-lapse video, unlisted on YouTube, which I had not previously seen. Below is, first, a screen grab from the video, which we annotated, and after that the video itself. At 0:30, it goes by very quickly, but you can see the spot fire taking off.

Cold Brook escaped prescribed fire spot fire

It may just be the time compression of the video, but it appears that the ignition within a few hundred feet of the highway, including the patches of pines, was aggressive. A gust of wind that occurred as a patch of pines were burning intensely laid the smoke down close to the ground just before the spot fire became visible. The firefighters had expected that if there were spot fires on the east side, it would be short range and in grass, easily suppressed. In the video, it appears possible that burning embers could have been lofted from the patches of timber that burned intensely, rather than grass spotting into grass. Embers from heavy fuels and standing trees can travel much farther than from grass.

There are no earth-shaking revelations in the report. As is typical with FLAs, it has a long list of “notable successes”. Here are a few:

    • No injuries.
    • The fire remained within the park boundaries.
    • No structures burned.
    • Training and experience led to a smooth transition to suppression.
    • In spite of the escape, they still completed the prescribed fire.
    • Interagency involvement, response and support for both the prescribed and wildfire side of operations was quick and supportive with no delays.
    • Knowing that a Red Flag Warning was in the forecast for the next day, they aggressively staffed the night shift in order to pick up the escape, knowing that if they failed it would be difficult to acquire adequate staffing for the next day. They stopped the spread that night, therefore large numbers of resources were not needed the next day.

A sampling of some of the issues identified in the report:

  • There was pressure from the Chief of Resources in the Park to complete the burn that day.
  • There was a perceived need to burn on the high end of the prescription in order to achieve the desired level of tree mortality.
  • There were not enough firefighting resources on the east side of the burn when the escape occurred. More emphasis was placed on the south and west sides near the park boundary, areas with heavier fuels, where they figured escapes were more likely and would have serious consequences if they spread outside the park.
  • Because of drought, fuels were abnormally dry.
  • Before the project began, the Burn Plan was amended and approved, reducing the number of personnel required from 52 to 30. On the day of the burn 38 were assigned.
  • Staffing levels in fire management at Wind Cave NP have suffered reductions, as has most of the NPS, but there has been no reduction in expectations for the accomplishment of prescribed fires in Wind Cave or the other seven parks the Fire Management Officer is responsible for.
  • The Fire Management Officer reports to eight different park superintendents, all with different expectations, similar burn windows, and priorities for burning.
  • The eight-foot high bison-proof fence on the western boundary of the park and the burn unit would have required that if firefighters were about to be entrapped by the fire or if there was a spot fire across it, they would have to scale the fence. The location of the fence, and the boundary on that side of the project, was not easy to defend.
  • Some of the personnel interviewed for the report were disappointed that there was no After Action Review after the escaped fire.
  • Everyone assigned to the incident was qualified for their positions, except for one person whose Work Capacity Test expired four days before the prescribed fire.
  • The rollover of the ATV was the second one at the Park in three years. About 13 years ago another ATV caught fire on a prescribed fire in the Park and was destroyed, but did not roll over.
  • ATV training does not include learning to operate the vehicle on the fireline.
  • The Ag Pumps used on the ATVs on the incident had been switched out for Mini-strikers which do not provide enough power to be successful during aggressive suppression activities.

We have one criticism of the report, which is otherwise quite good. The maps are difficult to read. This is partially caused by the very dark background satellite image which does not add value but instead makes the maps, at least as they are represented in the .pdf document and viewed on a computer screen, almost useless. They might be more usable if printed, but who prints a 62-page report anymore? Unfortunately, maps are an integral part of documents like this.

One segment of the report that is interesting is that after acknowledging that risk is involved in prescribed fire, the authors wrote, “If you choose not to accept the risk of prescribed fire, then you may be transferring risk” to communities, the public, private lands, natural resources, or a situation that is significantly less manageable than the current situation such as a wildfire.

About four days after the incident South Dakota’s senior Senator, John Thune, sent a very strongly-worded letter to the Secretary of the Interior using phrases like “could easily have been prevented”, “jeopardizing lives and property”, “smoke will likely damage the lungs of young calves”, and demanding that reimbursement is made quickly to “private individuals, landowners, and local, county, and state entities who suffered economic losses”. Ready, Fire, Aim.

One of the conclusions identified in the report is:

The ignition of the prescribed fire was within the prescription parameters set forth in the prescribed fire plan, it was not ignited during a fire weather watch or warning and the burn was expected to be completed prior to the next day, April 14th.

The Senator also has introduced a bill that would require “collaboration with state government and local fire officials before a prescribed burn could be started on federal land when fire danger is at certain levels in the area of the prescribed burn”.

The report has an entire section, Appendix Five, titled “Interagency Communication and Comment”. Here is an excerpt:

Interagency support for the prescribed fire program at Wind Cave National Park is strong, and the lead interviewer stated she heard “a tremendous amount of support” in the interviews she conducted. It is of note that the Great Plains Interagency Dispatch Center was one of the first in the nation to fully support not only Federal agencies, but the state of South Dakota as well, beginning in 2003. Since the Center serves as the central ordering point all agencies, communication is streamlined, and resource availability is better known to all the partners.

It was apparent to all Team members that NPS staff has put a great deal of effort into the Interagency working relationships over the years and are considered professional partners.

Wind Cave prescribed fire
Photo taken of the area where the Cold Brook prescribed fire crossed US Highway 385, taken 39 days after the fire.

Related articles on Wildfire Today:

Cold Brook prescribed fire escapes in South Dakota (updated with post-fire photos)
A UTV burned in the escaped prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park bounces back from escaped prescribed fire
Comparison photos, 6 days and 39 days after escaped prescribed fire
Senator criticizes Park Service over escaped prescribed fire
Bill introduced to require local approval or collaboration of prescribed fires
Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “escaped prescribed fire”
Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “prescribed fire”

Tonight’s sunset picture, June 25, 2015

wind cave national park sunset
Sunset over the two month old Cold Brook prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park. Photo by Bill Gabbert, June 25, 2015. (click to enlarge)

Tonight’s sunset picture was taken June 25 in Wind Cave National Park within the April 15 Cold Brook prescribed fire. With the copious rain over the last couple of months the area is aggressively green.