Smoky park

Flames and smoke are visible on a hillside behind cabins west of the State Game Lodge in Custer State Park in South Dakota on Dec. 13.

JIM HOLLAND, Rapid City Journal

While many of us were shopping last week for hot Christmas bargains or had visions of chestnuts roasting, hundreds of firefighters put their holiday plans on hold to save lives, homes, and public and private property.

And what a job they did.

The Legion Lake Fire exploded Tuesday night from around 4,000 to approximately 47,000 acres in and around Custer State Park in South Dakota. Firefighters from the Black Hills, western and eastern South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado and other places found themselves battling flames on tinder-dry land driven by bone-chilling winds that pushed the fire beyond the park’s boundaries to private land.

Evacuations were ordered for Fairburn and Buffalo Gap as the fast-moving blaze raged on its way to becoming the third-largest fire in the modern history of the Black Hills.

Yet as of Dec. 15, when the fire was 50 percent contained with over 50,000 acres burned, there were no reports of lives lost or homes destroyed. Custer State Park said its herd of around 860 bison had escaped the fire that claimed over 70 square miles.

While firefighters and air tanker pilots put their lives on the line to protect and serve, others provided support for those ordered to leave 175 homes in the southern Hills.

The American Red Cross, naturally, was on the scene providing food, aid and comfort. An evacuation center with cots was opened in the old gym at Hermosa School, where those who spent the night were fed by businesses that offered everything from pizza to fresh fruit to desserts — providing sustenance for those who could only hope and pray their homes would be spared.

In addition, local residents were helping others load and remove horses and cattle as the fire grew. “The neat thing was there was a lot neighbor helping neighbor, which is what they do around here,” Custer State Park Ranger Jim Ganser told the Rapid City Journal.

Not everyone came away unscathed by the fire. There are reports of outbuildings and fences being destroyed on private land scorched by the fire. But it could have been much worse if not for the efforts of firefighters whose tireless efforts protected valuable property and contained a fire that riveted the entire Black Hills.

Those efforts will enable residents of the fire zone to enjoy Christmas and offer thanks to the firefighters who gave them the greatest present of all — home sweet home with family and loved ones.

-- Rapid City (S.D.) Journal

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