A firefighter walks by flames of the burn out fire that was set set while battling a blaze in Custer State Park, Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017. High wind gusts are making it more difficult for firefighters to battle the blaze at the park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. (Hannah Hunsinger /Rapid City Journal via AP)

Evacuation lifted for South Dakota towns near wildfire

December 13, 2017 - 6:37 pm

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Lucia Roda stood in her backyard early Wednesday morning, watching flames shoot up in the dark for each tree a spreading western South Dakota wildfire engulfed on the hills not far from the Spanish mustang preserve she manages.

Roda's family got an early morning pre-evacuation notice suggesting they leave their home and the conservancy in Buffalo Gap, South Dakota, but they decided to remain rather than chance moving 34 horses in the dark. The family took the "calculated risk" to wait until morning so it would be safer if the horses had to be transported, Roda said.

"Last night at about three in the morning, it was a little hairy and a little scary," said Roda. "I don't think I've ever done something quite that scary, and I've done some dumb things in my life."

The wildfire in South Dakota's popular Custer State Park grew rapidly overnight, pushing beyond the park's borders and threatening nearby communities of Fairburn and Buffalo Gap, but evacuation orders for those cities were eventually lifted Wednesday.

The fire in the Black Hills park, which is just south of Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the state's southwest, grew from about 6 square miles (16 square kilometers) on Tuesday to about 55 square miles (142 square kilometers) on Wednesday and is 7 percent contained, according to park officials.

"From hearing the briefing this morning, a lot of these firefighters say they haven't seen anything like this fire in 10 to 20 years," said Kobee Stalder, the park's visitor services program manager. "A lot of people are comparing this to a mid-summer fire."

The Rapid City Journal reported it's the third-largest wildfire in modern Black Hills history. No one has been injured by the blaze, which started on Monday.

Some fences and outbuildings have burned, but none of the park's main buildings have been destroyed and crews succeeded in protecting the popular State Game Lodge by burning downed trees and grass between it and the fire.

The park is home to a herd of about 1,300 buffalo, and park officials tweeted Wednesday that they'd be checking on the wellbeing of the herd and other animals along its popular wildlife loop road. The fire's spread through the southeastern end of the park put wildlife in danger, but the officials said they don't know of any animal deaths. South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks tweeted a message seeking hay for the herd throughout the winter because of the fire.

The park is a top South Dakota tourist destination, featuring hills with ponderosa pine and prairie. Visitors often drive to see roaming buffalo, elk and bighorn sheep, and the park hosts a popular annual buffalo roundup.

The fire also spread into the northern part of Wind Cave National Park, said Chief of Interpretation Tom Farrell. He said the park's back country trails are closed, but the park did host a Christmas open house.

Kara Jo Webster, whose family has a ranch in Fairburn, said she and her siblings had to search for about 100 missing cattle into morning. The fire burned up a lot of their pastureland and destroyed fencing, she said.

"It's a mess — financially, mentally, physically. It's going to be hard for a little while," said Webster, who praised community members for their response.

A fire evacuation Facebook group had grown by Wednesday afternoon to more than 1,400 members. They offered shelter for displaced people, help hauling and housing animals and even assistance if indoor birds such as parrots needed to be evacuated.

Roda, 53, said a local rancher had a spot for the horses, but that the town's mayor, a member of the fire response, told her earlier Wednesday that he didn't think the family had to leave.

"I almost cried," Roda said. "I hugged him, and I thought the poor guy was going to fall over."

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