Custer State Park begins assessing fire impact on animals, property

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CUSTER, S.D. (AP / KNEP) - UPDATE:
Officials are starting to assess the toll of the Legion Lake fire in Custer State Park.

According to the park's Facebook page, the most severely-impacted animals were the park's herd of burros. Only five of nine have been found, and officials fear the remainder perished in the fire.

The majority of the bison herd has been discovered, with staff gathering them up and assessing them. The post also says a visual check of the majority of the park's antelope, elk and deer indicates they're doing well.

The 54,000 acre fire started by a downed power line is about 50 percent contained. That figure is expected to increase after day shift crews complete their rotation today, and while two heavy air tankers have been demobilized, a helicopter is staying on scene for air recon.

The good news for firefighters is that snow is predicted across the Black Hills Saturday.

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UPDATE:
Custer State Park officials say fire crews are making gains in their fight against the Legion Lake Fire.

While the fire has consumed more than 73 square miles, the blaze is 50 percent contained, up from 10 percent reported previously, and mop up work has started within the fire's perimeter. Authorities say light snow helped with the fire in the north, but conditions remain dry elsewhere in the fire area.

Officials say a fallen power line is to blame for the third-largest wildfire recorded in the Black Hills.

They're also asking that hay donations to those affected by a South Dakota wildfire should be made through Farm Rescue, a Plains farm aid nonprofit.

Matt Snyder, Custer State Park superintendent, thanked people who have reached about donating hay to the park. But he says officials have identified a greater need: neighbors and private landowners hurt by the fire. Snyder says once staff is released from addressing imminent fire danger, officials will re-assess the needs for wildlife and other areas of the park.

Custer State Park is a top South Dakota tourist destination. Visitors often drive to see roaming buffalo, elk and bighorn sheep.

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UPDATE:
The Legion Lake fire in Custer State Park continues to grow, but the good news is that people are being allowed to return to some of the 200 homes previously under evacuation orders.

Fire officials say the blaze continues to be active in the park and in areas just to the south and east. At last count, some 35,000 acres were affected. However, the only areas with evacuation orders still in place are the park itself and the Tatanka Spirit subdivision as of mid-Wednesday afternoon.

Highway 79 between Hot Springs and Hermosa, which had been closed overnight, has been re-opened as well.

High winds Tuesday night helped the burn area grow from 4,000 acres late in the day. The blaze is still only seven percent contained.

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ORIGINAL STORY:
Strong winds are fanning the flames of a growing wildfire in South Dakota, pushing the fire beyond the borders of the Custer State Park and prompting new evacuations.

Fire officials say the Legion Lake Fire on the eastern side of the park grew to about 31,000 acres overnight, up from around 4,000 acres burned at last report late Tuesday.

Custer County Emergency Management director Mike Carter said Wednesday that residents of about 200 homes east of the park have been evacuated or warned to evacuate. A small number of people were evacuated from Legion Lake Lodge, the former Star Academy East Campus and Blue Bell Lodge Tuesday.

The park and roads into and through it are expected to be closed through at least Friday, December 15. The fire began Monday and the cause is under investigation.