Jasper was one fire for the ages

Twenty years ago on Thursday, Aug. 24, at about 3 p.m.  or so we were on our way back from Newcastle, Wyo., heading to Custer on Highway 16 when we spotted a plume of black smoke several miles up ahead. This would be the start of the Jasper Fire of 2000 and occurred just about seven months after we had purchased the newspapers in Custer and Hill City. We had already experienced a big April snowstorm earlier in the year.
We managed to drive past the initial fire which was near Jewel Cave National Monument about 12 miles from Custer. It appeared to be burning to the north of the road. It was soon reported that a white van had been spotted at a pullout near what was later identified as the probable ignition point of the fire.
We would later learn that Janice Stevenson, 47, of Newcastle, Wyo., had pulled over to the north side of the highway to relieve herself. In the process she lit a cigarette and tossed the match in the dry grass. A fire started and took off, and so did Stevenson in her white van. She was later identified as the person in the van and admitted to starting the fire. She was charged with second degree arson, fined $42 million and sentenced to 10 years in prison. (The judge rightly figured she could never pay $42 million, so that requirement was dismissed).
The fire jumped the road to the south, endangering historic Jewel Cave buildings which were saved by firefighters foaming them. Then on Saturday winds shifted and blew hard from the south to the north, burning an incredible 48,000 acres in less than a day. Winds from the south are not that common, as most of ours come from the west or northwest, but this shift would turn out to be a Godsend.
There was the possibility of the city of Custer being in imminent danger and an evacuation plan was quickly drawn up by city and county officials. There were evacuations of homes between the fire and Highway 16, but Custer was never threatened as the fire roared north, on Forest Service land mostly, and into Pennington County.
We had reporters from all over the state and beyond in our building changing into fire retardant yellow shirts and green pants furnished by the Forest Service. This was a requirement if they expected to get up close to the fire. We formed a convoy and followed our leader to a relatively safe area to see and photograph the fire.
It is a tribute to good firefighting tactics that no one was injured or killed in this fast-moving fire. There was nothing anybody could do that Saturday when the fire roared north at an incredible speed. Firefighters were ordered to get out of the way and let it burn. There was no other choice. The fire had a mind of its own.
If there was ever to be a fire of this magnitude in the Black Hills, it couldn’t have picked a better place to burn and spare people and their homes. The grass is abundant and small pine trees can be seen growing everywhere, the result of replanting efforts. Wildlife have returned and life is good again in the Jasper Fire area.
Let’s hope it stays that way for future generations.

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