Deadwood marks 60th anniversary of Fire of ‘59

This area, just above Deadwood Stage Run, was once thickly wooded, but following the burn it incurred during the Fire of ’59, never regenerated with trees. Pioneer photo by Jaci Conrad Pearson

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To view stories about the fire reprinted exactly as they were published in the Deadwood Pioneer Times in 1959, view a copy of Monday's edition of the Black Hills Pioneer. 

DEADWOOD — Holocaust is defined as destruction on a mass scale, especially caused by fire. 

Consuming 4,501 acres and scarring the forest landscape in and around town forever, the Deadwood Forest Fire of ’59 erupted in 96-degree heat, following 42 days and no rain, in low humidity, fanned by a 20-to 25-mph shifting wind.

According to documentation provided by Mike Runge, Deadwood city archivist, a 75-year-old resident of Hillcrest Manor burned paper garbage in the manor’s incinerator, a 25-gallon cyanide barrel, around 1 p.m. Sept. 8, 1959. 

The wind promptly picked up the flaming paper, cruelly delivering it to a tinder dry area of grass. And the race against the unforgiving forces of nature was on.

Moving in a northly direction, the fire suddenly shifted, carrying the flames up a slope. Reaching the top of the slope, it roared back north and eastward toward Mt. Roosevelt, easterly toward Pine Crest Park, then toward Whitewood Peak and south across US Highway 14A along the Two-Bit Gulch area.

A 20-year-old newlywed at the time, former Deadwood Volunteer Fire Chief Jerry Pontius of Deadwood, who served the department for more than five decades, was one of the first on the fire.

Pontius and his late wife Jill had just moved a trailer house to Rapid City. Soon thereafter, Jill showed up to tell Jerry of the news and that he was needed in Deadwood to help fight the fire. Jerry and some of his college classmates from South Dakota School of Mines headed for Deadwood in his Jeep pickup, soon catching up with his father.

“He said they wanted some chainsaws, so we got some and were sent out,” Jerry recalled. “We ended up on Strawberry Ridge with an Ellsworth Air Base fire crew and the Forest Service boss. We cut a fire line and stopped the fire right there on Strawberry Ridge.” 

That work took place from 3:30 p.m. Sept. 8, 1959 until 8 a.m. the following day.

“Then they relieved us, and I went back to Rapid City and slept for 20 hours,” Jerry recalled. We didn’t really have that much time to think after we got the chainsaws together. We were sent to the Berry post plant to put out a few burning snags and from there, we went to Strawberry Ridge. By that time, we were way away from town and everybody was just trying to get it stopped.”

The fifth major blaze since 1876, it is only by sheer luck or the forces of the Almighty that the historic town of Deadwood is still standing.

Fire and its destructive forces are no stranger to Deadwood and its inhabitants. In fact, it’s a thread that has intricately woven itself through the town’s topography, greatly impacting its rich history with each ensuing rebuild and forest regeneration.

Deadwood’s Fire of ’59, was deemed the most destructive in terms of private property, home, and infrastructure loss, ever in the city or state’s history, with more than 60 structures destroyed, including the Barber Transportation warehouse, the Post and Pole plant, Wood Treatment Plant, motels, and other businesses, power and telephone lines, homes and livestock.

Fire grows quickly

Within five minutes of ignition, the blaze shot up the wooded hillside.

Within 45 minutes, it had burned its way through the forest to the opposite end of Deadwood.

Within the first hour, 1,000 firefighters were on the fire. 

By 4 p.m., the forest fire surrounded Deadwood on three sides and the only means of escape was the highway leading through Pluma to Lead.

Residents in Deadwood were evacuated – nearly 4,000 in less than 30 minutes, for a period of more than 36 hours.

By the end of the first day, both firefighters and volunteers were battling the fire.

Businessmen closed their shops to assist in fighting the fire.

“There were 3,600 people on that fire. That’s huge,” said Jerome Harvey, who has done extensive research, writing, and national presentations, including Firewise, on the Deadwood Forest Fire of ’59. He is also a former Deadwood and Lead fire chief, and the current Pennington County Fire Administrator

“Policemen went from door to door and into apartment buildings looking for able-bodied men, grabbed them and told them to go up on the fire.”

A go-to source on the subject, the Deadwood Forest Fire of ‘59 is near and dear to Harvey’s heart.

“I grew up with my father and several other individuals who were involved in that fire, so from a very early age, it maintained some significance in my mind,” Harvey said. “To date, cost-wise then and now, it is still the most destructive urban interface fire on record in South Dakota, with a significant impact to the community. It foreshadowed urban interface fires.”

Four air tankers were called to fight the fire and 27 bulldozers were deployed.

“There were serious injuries, but no casualties on this fire, although several minor accidents did occur,” Harvey said. “Two dozer operators were burned when fire overran them while they were working. A crew of men were temporarily trapped, but were led to safety by a helicopter. Power lines were down and were threatening the safety of firefighters until the power was cut off.” 

The Franklin Hotel served as command central.

A first for firefighting

The fire began on a Tuesday afternoon, and by 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, several helicopters and smoke jumpers from Missoula, Mont., stood by to fly over and jump into the hot spots to combat the remnants of the fire.

A converted B-24 bomber was brought in for water drops, as well as four TBF Avengers, converted World War II torpedo bombers.

A plane working out of the Spearfish airport dropped slurry – a fire retardant mixture added to water.

The fire remained an active 24-hour-a-day operation until Sept. 24. It was mopped up Sept. 19, 1959 and considered out on Sept. 23, 1959.

Harvey said the 1959 Deadwood Forest Fire witnessed several firsts in the use of air power in fire management efforts.

“It was the first use of helitack,” he said. “Helicopters were used for scouting, communications, stretching hose lines and rescue, leading 25 trapped firefighers to safety in the form of beaver dams. This was also the first use of air tankers and slurry dropped from the air on an actual working fire.”

The total cost of suppressing the fire exceeded $300,000 and total timber, watershed, recreation, wildlife, and improvements damage totaled $1,558,385.

It changed the forest landscape forever.

“In the area to the northwest of Deadwood, where the fire made its original run, there was nearly 100% kill of the 80- to 90-year old ponderosa pine timber,” Harvey said. 

Harvey said that while Black Hills fires are cyclic in nature and largely consist of stand replacement, they are, nonetheless, catastrophic.

“Those who do not heed history are doomed to live it again,” Harvey said. “The Deadwood Fire of ’59 continues to serve as a reminder of what happens when properties aren’t taken care of in regard to fire prevention, when people live in an area that is a red zone and that fires do have a significant impact.”

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