Custer State Park fire spreads rapidly, threatens towns - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Custer State Park fire spreads rapidly, threatens towns

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Associated Press Associated Press
Associated Press Associated Press

CUSTER, S.D. (AP) - A wildfire in a popular South Dakota state park grew rapidly overnight, pushing beyond the park's borders and threatening nearby communities where evacuations were underway Wednesday.

The fire in Custer State Park, which is just south of Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the state's southwest, grew from about 6 square miles on Tuesday to about 55 square miles today 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."

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.

The wildfire was threatening the communities of Fairburn and Buffalo Gap, which are east of the park. Residents of about 200 area homes have been evacuated or warned to evacuate, Custer County Emergency Management director Mike Carter said early Wednesday morning.

Lucia Roda, who manages a Spanish mustang preserve with 34 horses in Buffalo Gap, said her family got an early morning pre-evacuation notice suggesting they leave, but they decided to remain.

The family took a "calculated risk" to wait until morning so that it would be safer if the horses had to be moved, said Roda, who estimated the fire got within 3 miles of her home, which is a converted old stone schoolhouse.

"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."

Roda, 53, said a local rancher has a spot for the horses, if necessary, but that the town's mayor told her Wednesday that he didn't think the family had to leave.

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.

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