Custer, S.D. – The march of flaming torches set out from the parking lot of Custer Jr./Sr. High School around 5:30pm, last night. Snaking along neighborhood roads the crowd was buffeted by firefighters and led by team of giant puppeteers and an obligatory drumline with cowbell. The glowing procession was part of an annual free event in the small Black Hills town.
Last night marked the 10th Annual Burning Beetle, a community effigy burning that spreads awareness of the devastating impacts of the invasive Mountain Pine Beetle. Tickets to bear torches in the march to where the beetle is erected on Pageant Hill are sold the day of the event to fundraise for the area’s art community. There is a Facebook page for the event, a mention in South Dakota tourism brochures, and news coverage before, during, and after the festivities.
Prior to the torch march, a variety show featuring local performers is held in the auditorium of the high school. A pub crawl, called the Bug Crawl, also follows the bonfire in downtown Custer with live music at sponsoring venues.
It is traditional to chant, “Burn, beetle, burn!” as the march assembles and empties onto the course toward Pageant Hill. This year temperatures hovered just around freezing as anticipation crackled like flaming pine needles through the crowd of torch bearers, heating the air nearer the center of the chanting public. The customary chorus was punctuated by improvised cries including, “We’re gonna burn you, beetle!” and, “Wholesome fun!”
The heart of a mob can be a surprisingly warm place.
This year, once the final torch entered the ring of the beetle a controlled burn lit the dastardly insect whose mouth and antennae sparked flare-like. Torches from the merry mob were then set, pushed, and vaulted onto a bed of donated Christmas trees surrounding and below the beetle. A backdrop of fireworks added to the thrall.
On the return journey the crowd compared this year’s upright beetle construction with those designs from previous years and exchanged pleasantries over the variety show talents. One pitchfork that had waved in support of invasive species control measures just an hour before became a walking stick for its patron entering the parking lot.
Another successful beetle burning reminds and recharges Black Hills citizens that community support can spark great things in conservation and art through, “Wholesome fun!”