Hill City firefighters assisted with fire

By Jeff Smith

The Whispering Pines Volunteer Fire Department Engine 3-5 at the Legion Lake Fire. The department used the engine throughout the five days they had crews on the fire.

Hill City firefighters and firefighters with other departments helped with the Legion Lake fire that was officially contained on Dec. 19.

More than 84 square miles of Custer State Park was affected by the fire. This is nearly half of the park.

Craig Comer, Hill City Volunteer Fire Department chief, said Hill City firefighters engaged in structure protection and fire holding on “burnout operations.”

Comer was shaking his head the whole time at the size and timing of the fire.

Comer has been in Hill City since 1989 and has been with the fire department since 1992. He hasn’t seen a fire like this in December before.

Comer was on the right side of SD Highway 87 on Tuesday evening when the fire went outside the park boundary. With that amount of growth Comer said the alignment had to be perfect. Fuel, wind and topography had to be just right in order for an active fire front to burn the way it did.

The Hill City Fire Protection District is 466 square miles and consists mostly of trees. In addition to forest fires they assist with structure fires, wildland fires, extrications and cold water rescue.

Comer said the wildland fire season started brisk in 2017 as they were fighting fires from burn piles getting out of control from the start.

Enough rain came in the summer to knock the edge off of any chances of large fires.

“There were small ones around. Not one of any size,” Comer said about the summer fire season.

Brian Rupert, with the Hill City Volunteer Fire Department, took shifts on a Tuesday and Thursday to fight the fire. He said the backburns prevented the fire from coming through fast and also prevented it from behaving like a typical fire.

On Tuesday he said he provided water support for backburns in Grace Coolidge Dr. and then provided water support for burns at French Creek Horse Camp Campground. This was the day that they were trying to get headway on the fire before the wind came.

Rupert and others had to prevent flames from going through the campground.

On Thursday he was doing mop up near Blue Bell Lodge and making sure the flames didn’t cross the dozer line.

A power line that was knocked down by the tree caused the fire but high winds contributed to fire spreading the way it did.

Jason Peters, with the Hill City Volunteer Fire Department, said it was the most extreme fire behavior he has ever seen.

He said the flame front had six foot flames and was coming off of only six inches of grass. 

Hill City’s help also extended to two engines. They used a Type I structure engine and a Hawk tactical tender engine that holds 2,500 gallons of water for the fire. The last time a Hill City crew was on the scene of the fire was on the evening of Dec. 14.

Peters said what was accomplished with containing the fire had a lot to do with the Pennington County Fire Service.

“When another county has a fire Pennington County steps up big,” Peters said.

Whispering Pines Volunteer Fire Department also assisted with the fire. Rob Holso, assistant chief with Whispering Pines, said they were out there on Dec. 11 and were released on Sat. Dec. 16. Throughout the week they had to switch out guys since it is a small fire department.

“Custer County requested help on Monday and we were able to be sent out on Monday,” Holso said.

Holso said guys took off work from their day jobs to fight the fire.

Holso said the Whispering Pines Volunteer Department regularly helps neighboring fire districts. The area they cover is primarily the Sheridan Lake area to the Rapid City limits.

“What’s nice about the departments in the area is everybody is good about working together,” Holso said.

Holso said they were all pretty busy in the beginning and as the week progressed, everything settled down quite a bit.

Overall, he said it was a good learning experience.

“Fires this large don’t happen that often in this area,” Holso said.

The entire week they had a Type III engine. Holso said the majority of the week they were doing structure protection.

“The night it blew up from 3,500 to 35,000 acres we were doing burnout operations and homeowner evacuations,” Holso said.

The burnout operation took place around homes and the buffalo corral area.

The Whispering Pines crew started primarily at the Legion Lake area with the South Dakota State Wildland Fire guys. As the fire progressed they were doing home evacuations Wednesday and Thursday by the Custer County Airport. Also, they assisted with burnout operations on LH Road and Lame Johnny Road.

Holso said it’s hard to say what would’ve happened without the burnout operations. He does think that leaving the fire without any fuel helped around the buffalo corrals. There was farm machinery and buildings that could have been lost in that area.

“The flame front went there. There was no stuff for it to burn,” Holso said.

The “regen” trees can cause problems in fires which are formed through forest regeneration. These are the 2-8 ft. sapling trees plus the dry grass that kept the fire going.

“Most of the big trees were not hurt,” Comer said.

Not very many were not burned top to bottom in the fire. Custer State Park is going to see thriving growth going forward. Comer said everything should look really nice in the spring.