Custer State Park fire mop-up begins in S.D. |

Custer State Park fire mop-up begins in S.D.

A fallen power line sparked the Custer State Park wildfire, which grew to the third-largest ever recorded in the Black Hills, according to park officials. By Dec. 14, its fourth day, the fire had burned 53,875 acres (over 73 square miles) and was 50 percent contained.

Park officials said in a statement that fire crews were making gains as mop up work began within the fire’s perimeter.

The fire, which broke out in the early morning hours of Dec. 11, at the intersection of U.S. Highway 16A and S.D. Highway 87 North, spread from 4,000 acres to 35,000 in the first night, sending it out of park boundaries to private lands. In the morning of Dec. 13, the fire was close enough to the highway, to prompt the closure of highway 79, between Hot Springs and Hermosa.

A number of evacuations were also in place, including Cobb, Downen, Dry Creek and LH roads, along with Buffalo Gap and Fairburn. Highway 79 reopened and by Dec. 14, all bans were lifted.

Sara Beard, owner of Ranchers Feed and Seed, in Buffalo Gap, got the evacuation notice at midnight.

“When I left work at about 6, there was nothing on the news,” she said. “It moved really really fast.”

According to park reports, there had been no injuries, and no main park buildings were destroyed in the blaze, as of Dec. 13. Efforts to protect the popular State Game Lodge and Blue Bell Lodge were successful.

Light snow helped with the fire in the north, but conditions were dry within the perimeter, the park said in the statement. The park remains closed while officials evaluate public and staff safety.

While the mopping up begins, and residents in the area hope the 50 percent containment grows, those in the fire path begin their own assessments.

“The firefighters did an amazing job,” Beard said. “I haven’t heard of any houses burned.”

But reports on the loss of grassland, fences, and outbuildings are beginning to come in.

“…As most of you know the Legion Lake and Custer State Park fire has affected many people and animals. I’m reaching out to ask for help for Paul and Jan Schnose. Their house was saved and I believe almost all their livestock intact. All of their trees and all of their winter hay is gone. If anybody knows them down by Buffalo Gap and can leave them some hay, they would be grateful and so would I. If you can help with hay you can reach me at 430-7898. Paul and Jan took me in when I was 14 years old and after my Mom died. I can’t say enough good things about them and their compassion and I hope some of you can help them. Thank you and much love for all of you!,” Jami Rae posted on Facebook.


A number of losses and a cost will be placed on the devastation of a fire this size after the flames are put out, but the health effects on animals can be a problem, long after those final numbers.

Producers have decisions to make, including whether to doctor now, and risk more stress to animals, or wait to assess health issues, Beard said.

In a 2016 report from Russ Daly, DVM, South Dakota State University, he said that smoke inhalation, burns and thermal injury, exertion, stress, and injuries suffered during escape can all cause longer-term effects on cattle that have survived wildfires or building fires.

According to Daly, some of the body systems that can be affected and should be watched include:


Smoke inhalation can cause both immediate and long-term harmful effects to the respiratory system. Cattle that have facial or muzzle burns, or a crusty nose are more likely to have suffered smoke inhalation than other cattle.

The worst short-term effects usually happen during or shortly after the fire.

1-24 hours: Pulmonary edema — fluid building up in the alveoli (air exchange areas deep in the lungs) due to the irritant effect of smoke. This results in cough and rapid, moist breathing.

Several hours to several days: The small airways deep in the lungs swell up, making it harder for air to pass through to the alveoli, where oxygen exchange occurs. This results in heavy, labored breathing, as the animal tries to force air through these partially blocked airways, as well as wheezing, as the air whistles through the partially blocked airways.

Longer term possibilities include:

4-10 days later: Increased potential of pneumonia due to damage to respiratory defense mechanisms.

4-6 weeks later: healing of the airways is as complete as it will get. Until this time, cattle may be more prone to shortness of breath and acute respiratory collapse if they are exerted or stressed.

Longer term (months/years): Some survivors may be intolerant of exercise or heat due to longer-term damage to small airways.

Consult a veterinarian for treatment advice. Preventative antibiotics to ward off pneumonia may be an option for some animals, but they also require lengthy slaughter withdrawal periods.


Unless heat damage is very severe, cattle might not immediately show signs of feet problems. The most common result of severe heat damage is the sloughing of hooves 1-3 weeks after the fire. Commonly, these animals seem like they are doing fine on their feet until a sudden onset of lameness, accompanied by signs of infection around the coronary band. While this can be confused with infection or foot rot, it usually means that hooves are in the process of sloughing, and antibiotic treatment will not be fruitful. With few exceptions, these animals should be humanely euthanized. Ideally, animals that have come through the fire should be provided soft bedding if possible.


Cows with burned teats are candidates for culling. Inflammation due to burns may result in mastitis and non-productive quarters next calving. Producers should especially assess the health of the teat openings when making culling decisions.


The extent of burn damage to sheaths and scrotums may not be evident for 4-6 weeks. As healing progresses, sheaths should be examined for excessive scarring that may block the opening. Breeding soundness exams should be prioritized prior to next breeding season for bulls retained in the herd.

In some locations, trichomoniasis may be an issue when herds co-mingled due to breached fences. Consult your veterinarian about the possible need for testing before next breeding season.


Eyes irritated due to smoke and heat may show signs similar to pinkeye. Healing of these conditions will likely take longer than a typical pinkeye case. Consult a veterinarian about possible antibiotic treatment of these animals, realizing that any treatment may also have a lengthy slaughter withdrawal.

While a great number of surviving cattle will not show any long-term effects of a wildfire, cattle producers should be aware of the potential of problems down the road. Producers should always consult a local veterinarian to help them make treatment and culling decisions in the best interests of the animal and the operation.

-Eatherton is a freelance writer from Beaulah, Wyo. When she’s not writing, she’s riding her horse or playing with her grandson. She can be reached at