BISMARCK — Gov. Doug Burgum declared a statewide fire emergency on Thursday, April 1, as more than half of the state is facing extreme drought conditions and the U.S. Forest Service called for evacuations in response to wildfires in the Medora area.

Two National Guard Black Hawk helicopters with water buckets have been deployed to Billings County to help combat the fire southwest of Medora, according to a statement from the governor's office. Officials are advising residents to stay away from the area.

With smoke from the grass fire reducing visibility, eastbound and westbound lanes of Interstate 94 are temporarily closed from Beach to Belfield until further notice, according to the North Dakota Highway Patrol. No detour is in place, and motorists must use alternate routes.

This week, multiple wildfires have sprouted around the state. Nearly half the state is facing extreme drought conditions — an area that has grown by close to 20% from last week thanks to persistent dry conditions and Monday's high winds, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

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All but four North Dakota counties have implemented burn bans, and wildfires have sprouted in multiple regions of the state this week. A downed powerline caused a grass fire that spanned more than three miles outside Richardton on Tuesday. Multiple northeast North Dakota fire crews responded to a fire last weekend that burned more than 250 acres near the Grand Forks International Airport. And last week near the Canadian border, a U.S. Border Patrol agent rescued a man whose vehicle was set ablaze by a brush fire.

"North Dakota must be prepared to respond to wildland fires during periods of ongoing dry conditions and drought patterns," Burgum said in a statement to Maj. Gen. Al Dohrmann, adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard, on Thursday. "To prepare to support local and tribal firefighting efforts, assist federal fire partners, and respond to fire emergencies across the State, we must have firefighting resources available on short notice."

According to the North Dakota Forest Service, more than 140 wildfires have been reported so far this year, burning over 30,000 acres — more than triple the acreage burned by wildfires in all of 2020.

The recent dry conditions have sparked fires across the upper Great Plains. A grass fire covering close to 500 acres closed a portion of a highway in western Minnesota earlier this week, and Burgum's announcement came just two days after South Dakota entered a state of emergency in response to Black Hills wildfires that have forced hundreds of evacuations in the western region of the state.

Under Burgum's emergency declaration, National Guard troops can now assist in local, state and tribal fire response efforts, the governor's office said.

The North Dakota Forest Service will also continue to assist local and tribal response efforts and position fire engines as a preventative measure in high-risk areas, according to a statement from State Forester Tom Claeys. In addition, Claeys noted that Colorado has provided North Dakota with two additional wildland fire engines through a state exchange.

Authorities have called for evacuations in response to wildfires in the Medora, N.D., area on Thursday, April 1. Smoke and wildfires are impacting travel on Interstate 94 in western North Dakota, according to the Forest Service. Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service
Authorities have called for evacuations in response to wildfires in the Medora, N.D., area on Thursday, April 1. Smoke and wildfires are impacting travel on Interstate 94 in western North Dakota, according to the Forest Service. Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.

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