Any visitors stopping through Custer, South Dakota in late January, may have thought they stumbled into a rough part of the state. Torch carrying residents marching through the streets shouting “burn beetle burn” could make even the most astute tourist run for the hills.
An annual tradition in Custer, Bark Beetle Blues brings attention to a persistent pest in this part of the country – the Mountain Pine Beetle. Over 430,000 acres of land in the Black Hills has been affected by the infestation and it’s quite evident in many areas of the region.
The event begins with a small town talent show, followed by the local fire department handing out lit torches to residents. (There’s something you don’t see everyday) Those lucky enough to score a torch march together along a few city streets to a nearby park. The torches are then placed on discarded Christmas trees propped up against a massive recreation of a mountain pine beetle.
Once the big beetle is in flames, fireworks blast overhead and the town celebrates. A glance at the official event Facebook page shows people came from near – but also far. One fan writes: “It was worth flying in from Memphis!” Another wrote: “I drove in all the way from Buffalo, Wyoming and I’ll be back again next year!”
I had the opportunity to march through the streets at this year’s event with the Custer Chamber of Commerce who provided me with one of the coveted torches. While providing live video to Bill On The Road followers, we carried our flames to Pageant Hill. On a cold winter night in South Dakota, the warmth of the “beetle inferno” was more than welcome.
While it’s a fun and certainly unique celebration, organizers say the main goal is to bring awareness to the devastation from the mountain pine beetle. Once a tree is attacked, there’s no saving it. The beetle exists in other regions around the country as well, including Rocky Mountain National Park where they’ve been battling many of the same issues as the Black Hills.
The next Bark Beetle Blues is scheduled for January 20, 2018.