MEDORA, N.D. — Wildfires engulfed patches of the Badlands near Medora Thursday, April 1, forcing evacuations of residents and businesses in the western North Dakota tourist town.

Following an emergency alert system message calling for the evacuation of the city of Medora, a mass callout for help was placed to local, state and federal fire crews.

Firefighters battled the blaze southwest of Medora, which at one point, encroached on the edges of the city. As of 8 p.m., fire officials reported that 15% of the fire had been contained, with an estimated 9,600 acres burned.

And with extreme drought conditions stretching over much of North Dakota, Gov. Doug Burgum enacted a statewide wildfire emergency early Thursday evening, authorizing National Guard troops to assist in state and local fire responses. Two Black Hawk helicopters were deployed by the Guard to Billings County, where they shuttled water to combat and contain the blaze into the evening.

Crews stopped the fire before it reached downtown Medora, though Joe Wiegand, a longtime town resident, noted that any smoke damage to buildings or the nearby Burning Hills Amphitheater, home of the Medora Musical, will have to be assessed in the morning.

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Some residents who remained behind at historic sites spent the day as makeshift bucket brigades, pouring water on buildings nearest the fire. As the sun set in Medora, the bulk of the fire kept burning, and changing wind directions could still pose risk to the town overnight.

"Responders are making good progress on fire containment despite the difficult terrain and red flag conditions," the North Dakota Forest Service said in a statement. "Critical fire weather and fire conditions are expected to continue."

Bill Palanuk, with the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame in Medora, said every effort was made to preserve historic parts of the Old West-style town.

"What's concerning is that the smoke is dark, and grass fire smoke is a white smoke," Palanuk said. "You see in the videos areas of black smoke coming out and that indicates that there is most likely something other than grass burning."

Wiegand said the fire started amid gusting winds of 25 mph from the west on a northeasterly angle toward the Burning Hills amphitheater, Chateau de Mores and the Chateau Interpretive Center.

"The fire swept over and claimed cemetery ridge, the Medora cemetery, and then swept into a little canyon where the roadway goes up to the Medora Musical. And I'm glad to say that the Medora Foundation house, which is a family house on that hill on the way up, is entirely intact and it appears that the fire went around it," Wiegand said.

Medora resident Wally Owen said he called the fire into the authorities after seeing smoke near his property south of downtown Thursday afternoon. Owen said he saw flames as high as 40 feet in the distance.

The fire got as close as a quarter mile from his land, but Owen stuck around to make his property more fireproof by wetting the grass around his house and the wooden shingles on his roof. Owen said his estate was undamaged and he didn't think any of his neighbors' buildings caught fire.

Medora resident Wally Owen said the flames from a wildfire got within a quarter mile of his property on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Photo submitted by Wally Owen
Medora resident Wally Owen said the flames from a wildfire got within a quarter mile of his property on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Photo submitted by Wally Owen


Owen, who has lived near Medora most of his life and once operated the Peaceful Valley Ranch in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, said he has never seen a fire that was "such a threat" to the historic downtown district. As a steward of local history and promoter of the area, Owen said he is beyond relieved that the town appears to have survived the blaze.

"Prayers were answered," he said.

With smoke from the fire reducing visibility, Interstate 94 was temporarily closed from Beach to Belfield but is now open, according to the North Dakota Highway Patrol.

Extreme conditions

Thursday's Billings County wildfire broke out amid pervasive drought and some of the most fire-ripe conditions North Dakota has seen in years. 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 high winds, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

All but four North Dakota counties have implemented burn bans, and grass fires 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.

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 declaration 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.

The North Dakota Forest Service will 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 wildland fire engines through a state exchange.

For information on how to prevent wildfires, or to view maps showing current burn ban restrictions and fire danger levels, visit www.ndresponse.gov.

This is a developing story and updates will be made as more information is available.

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Local, State, and Federal fighters are on scene of an active wildfire southwest of Medora, ND. We ask the public to avoid the area to allow emergency responder's easy access to the fire. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service)
Local, State, and Federal fighters are on scene of an active wildfire southwest of Medora, ND. We ask the public to avoid the area to allow emergency responder's easy access to the fire. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service)