NEAR CANNON BALL, N.D. - North Dakota National Guard helicopters with water buckets scooped water from the Missouri River on Sunday to extinguish a large grass fire that started overnight just west of the main camp where Dakota Access Pipeline opponents are staying.
A United Nations official also visited the camp Sunday to hear from protesters about their encounters with law enforcement and possible human rights violations. Authorities also were investigating a possible drowning in the Cannonball River between two of the protest camps.
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People at the main Oceti Sakowin camp said the grass fire started around 1:30 a.m. on a hill across Highway 1806 from the camp entrance. The fire spread to the northwest, away from the camp that is just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
Claudia Skenandore, 60, from Oneida, Wis., said she was still awake inside her tent when she heard commotion outside as campers noticed the fire.
"They were going nuts. And security was on the radio saying, 'It wasn't us, it wasn't us. We don't know who did it,' " Skenandore said of the camp's security volunteers.
Two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters with 600-gallon water buckets scooped water from Lake Oahe, a dammed section of the Missouri River, and dumped on the fire for more than an hour until about 10 a.m. No infrastructure was damaged, the Morton County Sheriff's Department said.
The Mandan Rural Fire Department was dispatched to the area but couldn't reach the fire because of the terrain, Morton County spokeswoman Donnell Preskey said. The fire started on private property, she said.
People staying at the camp with high-powered camera lenses watched as the fire developed.
Myron Dewey, an independent filmmaker at the camp, said on his Facebook page he observed two people in a white Honda leaving the area. Dewey, who said he has experience working for hotshot fire crews, said the fire appeared to be started by a drip torch.
Speculation about who started the fire ran wild in the camp, with some suggesting it was started by the pipeline company or other outside "agitators" with hopes that protesters would be blamed. A spokeswoman for Dakota Access could not immediately be reached for comment.
The sheriff's department and State Fire Marshal will investigate, including whether the fire was intentionally set, Preskey said.
'We felt helpless'
Frank Archambault, a member of the camp security team and cousin to Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II, said the helicopters dumped water to the northwest where the fire was spreading but not on the hill directly across from the camp.
"They didn't put anything on this side, so we sent people up with blankets to tap it out," he said.
A woman who only wanted to be identified as Roxy watched the helicopters from Backwater Bridge just north of the main camp.
"We felt helpless. We're trying to protect our water and then somebody did this," she said.
While it wasn't known who started the fire, Frank Archambault said security was told by tribal elders to "get a grip" on destructive activity - including the burning of vehicles on the bridge - in order to maintain a peaceful and prayerful protest.
"We are not condoning anything like that," he said. "We are trying to get a hold of the radicals and get them dismissed."
Some pipeline opponents said they believe the state is purposely keeping Backwater Bridge blocked as a stalling tactic to keep protesters away from the Dakota Access construction site on the other side. But Preskey said the bridge is not being cleared because the burned vehicles are still smoldering and the state Department of Transportation has deemed the bridge unsafe for anyone to cross. It will remain closed until bridge engineers evaluate damage to the structure, the DOT said Friday.
Meanwhile, construction of the 1,172-mile pipeline that will transport 470,000 barrels of North Dakota crude oil to Illinois inched closer to Lake Oahe. Pipeline opponents at the Sacred Stone Camp near Cannon Ball said they could see workers preparing for the drilling pad to go under the lake.
"It is hard to watch the thing you're here praying for and protecting - life - being ripped away," said Kayla Sutherland, a 23-year-old from Toronto who has spent two months at the camp.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to withhold the easement that Dakota Access needs to cross Lake Oahe.
UN member visits
A member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues visited the camp Sunday to hear from protesters, including three of the 141 arrested Thursday as hundreds of officers forced protesters from a camp directly in the path of the $3.8 billion pipeline.
Grand Chief Edward John of the Tl'azt'en Nation in northwestern British Columbia said the 16-member forum typically reports once a year on indigenous issues, "but this is an extraordinary situation." He said he was invited by Archambault, the tribal chairman.
Asked whether there appeared to have been any human rights violations, John said, "You're going to have to wait for my report on that. But you've heard the stories from people whose rights have been violated, civil rights, when they're taken in."
Among other complaints, protesters have criticized the temporary holding cells that Morton County used to hold arrestees before sending them to jails across the state as "dog kennels." They also claim authorities used excessive force in shooting some protesters with pepper spray, bean bag rounds and sponge rounds.
Authorities have said they used only enough force to diffuse the situation, as protesters refusing to leave the pipeline company's property lit fires and threw water bottles, logs and other items at officers. The holding cells were approved by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, they noted.
As John interviewed protesters, authorities investigated a possible drowning in the Cannonball River.
At least three ambulances and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs responded to the scene in Sioux County in the Rosebud camp, across the river from the main Oceti Sakowin camp.
Preskey said search-and-rescue teams from Morton County and the state Game and Fish Department were assisting at the BIA's request. One boat was already in the water and officials were preparing to launch a second boat at about 4 p.m. from a ramp at Fort Rice, she said.
BIA spokeswoman Nedra Darling said shortly before 5 p.m. that it was still an active investigation and she could not release any information.