Updates to the article:
CUSTER STATE PARK -- State, federal and volunteer firefighters in Custer State Park were battling a fast-moving wildfire Monday evening that forced officials to close part of the popular Wildlife Loop Road and evacuate the French Creek Horse Camp.
The blaze, named the Four Mile Fire, had burned about 500 acres of land six miles southeast of Blue Bell Lodge by Monday evening, according to a news release from the Great Plains Fire Information Center. The cause of the fire was unknown Monday evening.
The fire began burning north Monday afternoon but by early evening shifting winds were threatening to turn the fire back toward the firefighters battling it, according to incident commander Ray Bubb.
"As the cold front comes by, it should shift our winds to the northwest," he said at about 6:30 p.m. "So that will drive the fire to the southeast - basically where we're at right now."
Bubb was stationed at the Incident Command Post at the Custer State Park Buffalo Corrals in the southern area of Custer State Park - also the location of the Horse Camp evacuees.
Bubb said firefighters were conducting burnout operations in preparation for that shift, adding that the winds were making the fire extremely unpredictable.
"Right now we're in kind of an iffy period where the wind is kind of bouncing on us a little bit," he said.
He said he hoped the cooler weather and stable northwest winds expected from the front would help firefighting efforts.
"That will give us a little bit better handle, and we'll be able to get a good anchor point on the heel of the fire," Bubb said. "Hopefully, we're far enough out that we can be ready for it to come this way."
Park spokesperson Becky Graff said the fire started southwest of the Wildlife Loop Road, jumped the road and was began burning toward the north, in the direction of the horse camp.
The fire's rapid movement forced park officials to close much of the Wildlife Loop Road and begin evacuating the camp.
Graff said the camp apparently was evacuated without injury.
Bubb said people at Blue Bell Resort had been put on alert in case the fire shifted unpredictably toward that direction.
An observer from the Mount Coolidge Fire Lookout Tower reported the fire about 1:30 p.m.
Beth Hermanson of the South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire Suppression advised the public to stay away from the fire area and encouraged reporters covering the blaze to be especially careful.
"It's extreme fire behavior at this point," Hermanson said. "It's crowning, torching and spotting."
She said some firefighters were being pulled off areas of the fire because of its unpredictable nature.
"It's just very unsafe out there right now," she said Monday evening.
The Northern Great Plains Type 2 Team has been sent to fight the blaze. The team is headed by Joe Lowe, state coordinator of wildland fire suppression.
Resources on the fire include a single-engine air tanker, three dozers, 10 type-six engines and four crews. Two more crews are being ordered, along with a heavy air tanker, to fight the blaze.
Graff said the fire was burning in a transition zone between the grasslands and the forest.
"It's growing, really in the transition from the prairie into the forest," she said. "There's a lot of grass out there to get it started, and once it hits those trees, it's going to go."
Graff said there are 30 campsites at the French Creek Horse Camp, and the camp was about 90 percent full before the fire.
Terry and Vickie O'Connors of Lakeville, Minn., were among the evacuees. They said they came back from a horseback ride to find wildlife officials evacuating the horse camp.
"We saw the smoke and they came in ahead of us with the truck," Terry O'Connors said. "They just told everyone to get out."
The evacuation went smoothly, he said, although he became a little nervous when he came upon the evacuation.
"When you see the fire outfits going out, you're not going the right direction," he said with a laugh.
The couple had planned to go to a location in Custer with their horses until the French Creek Camp was deemed safe again.
Motorists are encouraged to stay away from the Wildlife Loop Road area. South Dakota Highway Patrol troopers have set up a roadblock at the intersection of Highway 16A and Wildlife Loop Road.
According to an update by an interagency fire-information center, witnesses saw some torching with a large plume of black smoke. Because of the torching, fire spotting was reported about 300 yards out from the main body of the fire.
The interagency update warned that fire danger is high throughout the entire Black Hills area with very high to extreme fire danger in the prairie areas. All fine dead fuels ignite readily, fires start easily from most causes, and unattended brush and campfires are likely to escape, the update said.
Fires spread rapidly under such conditions, and short-distance spotting is common.
The Great Plains Interagency Joint Information Center is now open for the season. The public can call 393-8055 for the latest fire information.
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