CUSTER, S.D. – Where there is smoke, there’s fire, and if you saw smoke coming from Custer Saturday night, it was probably emanating from the Burning Beetle.
For as long as the Black Hills have been around, there have probably been Mountain Pine Beetle infestations, and after a particularly bad one that began in the 1990’s, frustrated residents decided to take a creative approach to express what they were seeing.
A small group of concerned citizens came together nearly 10 years ago and created original songs, poetry, skits, and more to come to terms with the changing landscape.
“We were losing at that time close to a million trees a year in the Black Hills, and people in Custer as well as around the whole Black Hills were just very upset about what was going on; didn’t really understand,” event coordinator Hank Fridell explained. “The forest was changing, trees were dropping. It was a mess.”
This year, hundreds of participants gathered in the Custer High School parking lot, where they lit torches and paraded through the nearby streets up to Pageant Hill. A drum corps played throughout the march, as participants chanted “burn beetle, burn” into the early evening air.
Upon their arrival to Pageant Hill, a large and menacing Mountain Pine Beetle sat atop a tinderbox of a throne, awaiting its fiery demise. The marchers circled around the large structure, tossing their torches at a pile of old Christmas trees.
In minutes, the beetle went up in a blaze of glory until all that was left were bits of ash that swirled through the air, fireworks lighting up the sky over the beetle.
Currently, the beetles remain in a state of remission until they strike again. However, as Fridell explains, the festival remains as a celebration of the area.
“We’ve kept the event to help us, I think, remember that we live here. We love this place. And the forest is going to change,” he said. “We have fires here, we have beetles. Sometimes there’s droughts, sometimes we have too much rain. But it’s just part of where we live and we want to celebrate this place where we live.”