Areas in the Black Hills previously damaged by wildfires show signs of recovery, restoration

CUSTER, S.D. – For owner of Custer’s Big Pine Campground, Bill Paterson, a nearby fire from April 7 almost cost him his business.

“We weren’t here at the time when it all happened. We were getting alerts through social media about the evacuations and everything,” Paterson said. “It was very scary, obviously. This was our livelihood, and we knew how close it was, but we had a lot of faith in the people.”

Residents in the area were also alerted.

The Land Burned By The Wabash Fire Near Patersons CampgroundAround 6:30 a.m., forest officials got a call for what they would later name the Wabash Fire. And by 7:00 a.m., the plume of smoke could be seen for miles. That day, an estimated 35 homes had to be evacuated that day.

However, destruction was not the only thing left behind. More than a month after the fire, green grass has replaced the once scarred ground to the point where if you didn’t notice the charred bases of nearby tree trunks, it looks like a fire never really came close to the campsite.

In the Black Hills, officials estimate fires regularly occur in nature on an average of 27 years.

And as modern human interaction has worked so hard to prevent them from happening, it has since become an issue of taking away a naturally-occurring element of forest maintenance.

March’s Anti-Horse Prescribed Burn is a part of re-introducing fire to the landscape. Forest officials both in the air and on foot burned away tons of downed and potentially dangerous fuels left behind from the Jasper Fire of 2000.

And as a result, where ash and smoldering remains once stood, lush vegetation has taken over.

“Those nutrients are locked up in that carbon that’s laying on the ground. As that material burns, turns into ash, it’s fertilizer,” said Chris Stover, fuels specialist for the Black Hills National Forest. “That fertilizer is now going to enter the soil as it rains, and that’s going to improve the growth and vigor of the plants out here – whether it be grasses or forbs and such.”

The vegetation, aside from rejuvenating the landscape, also helps bring wildlife to the area. Of course, even with prescribed burns, fires can still occur.

For residents, something as common as general yard maintenance can help keep flames at bay, according to state officials.

“Things like raking your leaves up, raking your pine needles up, eliminating that fuel loading on your lawns and in your gutters – that is all essential to helping firefighters save your homes.” said Jeni Lawver, public information officer for South Dakota Wildland Fire.

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