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TERRY WOSTER: Close encounter of the fire kind

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opinion Mitchell, 57301

Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

One late-August afternoon, I headed out of Custer State Park toward Highway 79, Hermosa and the road home to Pierre with a thick column of smoke preventing me from relaxing and enjoying the ride.

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The smoke was from the Jasper Fire, a wildfire that started on Aug. 24, 2000, near the main buildings of Jewel Cave National Monument on the highway between Custer and the Wyoming line this side of Newcastle. The fire became the biggest in the recorded history of the Black Hills, I was told. It burned something like 83,000 acres of timber, pasture, meadow and road ditches before firefighters contained it.

Jasper was the first wildland fire I ever covered as a news reporter. It was the last and only one, too. I'd witnessed plenty of prairie fires as a kid, and when I was old enough to be trusted to join the adults, I'd helped fight a few, with wet gunny sacks and shovels and a healthy respect for the trickiness of fire, wind, weather and terrain.

Watching or fighting a prairie fire in your own back yard isn't the same as trying to report on a wildland fire in the mixed terrain of the southern Black Hills. When the call came late on a Saturday night that I should head out early the next morning for the fire, I didn't sleep much. I had no idea what one wore to a wildland fire and no idea how one reported such a story. Turned out, I wore what I had, and I reported the story by asking questions, listening and going into as many briefings and field camps and backcountry locations as I could.

The first day, I drove into Custer and couldn't find anyone to tell me what was happening. Finally, a Forest Service worker told me the main camp was over in Newcastle, and since the highway between Custer and Newcastle was closed by fire, the only way to get to Wyoming was down through Edgemont, across and back up. Long trip. Lot of smoke along the way. Weird moment when the highway crossed a bike trail somewhere south of Custer and a couple of ghostly riders emerged from the haze of the low-hanging smoke.

I got to Newcastle in time for a briefing, where I learned the camp was being moved to a spot a few miles east of Custer. I also learned then-Gov. Bill Janklow and a few officials involved in fighting the fire were holding a town-hall meeting in Custer. I had no time to backtrack around the southern edge of the hills, not if I intended to make the meeting. I followed a Forest Service van over the closed highway, blasting up and down the mountainside, zipping around the tight turns and swooping down deep valleys and powering up the other sides. My little Triton engine was whining all the way. I had to keep pace with the federal guy or try to explain why I was speeding on a closed highway in the middle of a state of emergency.

I stayed just close enough. We made the meeting, the first of several in the days that followed as the fire grew and so did the number of firefighters committed to stopping it. Things fell into a bit of a routine -- for me, not so much for the firefighters. I'd hit the early morning briefing, wander the camps, go out toward the fire line until I was stopped, do some interviews around town and around the countryside, go to the later briefings, and write some stories and crash for the night.

The first time I got close enough to actually see fire and the people fighting it, I couldn't believe we had a chance of winning. But a whole lot of folks knew what they were doing, a bunch of other folks trusted their leaders and did their jobs, and eventually, the thing was beaten -- for the time being. I left while the fire was still burning but after officials were pretty confident it was being contained.

Still, as I drove away and saw the smoke in the rear-view mirrors, I worried.

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