MEDORA, N.D. — Residents of Medora were forced to evacuate as 3,000 acres were claimed by a wildfire Thursday and Friday, as local, state and federal fire services worked around the clock to save North Dakota’s tourism gem.
As of 11 a.m. MDT on Saturday, April 3, firefighters report more than 50% containment with an estimated 3,000 acres burned by the wildfire. Local, state and federal agencies responded quickly to control the wildfire, preventing structural damage to the city of Medora and surrounding area. Responders are continuing to make progress on fire containment despite the difficult terrain and sustained red flag conditions.
The USDA Forest Service issued a closure for the area affected by the wildfire, including Buffalo Gap Trail from I-94 southeast to its intersection with the Maah Daah Hey Trail, and the Maah Daah Hey Trail from the National Park Boundary south to Sully Creek State Park. This order is to protect public health and safety, and is in effect until further notice.
“In the state of North Dakota, we are faced with potentially disastrous wildland fire. Residents responded in a very safe manner. Firefighting resources came together from the local level, the state level, and the federal level, all partners working together collaboratively,” said Tom Claeys, state forester for North Dakota. “Moving forward, we are in a place well ahead of previous years. We started wildland fire season on January 14 with a very large fire, and we urge people to be careful with fire. Be safe and continue to be vigilant as the spring fire season continues.”
North Dakota had a very open winter with not much accumulated snowfall, leaving potential fuel for fires across every part of the state. Claeys urged North Dakotans to be cautious and cognizant of fire prevention, as this situation here in Medora could happen in virtually any other place given the right conditions.
Authorities on Friday greatly reduced estimates of the damage from nearly 10,000 acres to just over 3,000, and by 6 p.m. on Friday, April 2, had declared that more than half of the wildfire had been extinguished. Sunrise on day 3 brought even better news as the spread of the fire had been contained and perimeter work to reduce the overall wildfire's size continue.
"We're better than halfway on this right now," said Major Dean Wyckoff of the Billings County Sheriff's Office. "It's an on going struggle but it's certainly in a better place and under control. The crews are focused on the perimeter."
While no injuries or structural damage to the town was had, many braced for the worst as flames drew increasingly closer to the heart of Medora. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Burning Hills Amphitheatre, home to the Medora Musical, and Chateau de Mores were spared by timely arrival of fire service personnel.
Gov. Doug Burgum declared a statewide wildfire emergency on Thursday, enabling the North Dakota National Guard to deploy two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, which since day 1 have greatly aided with under carriage water buckets pulled from nearby sources of water — including Patterson Lake and parts of the Little Missouri River to help fight the fire.
Burgum had placed the Guard on standby to provide help if additional resources were needed to respond to a growing number of wildfires in North Dakota as extreme drought conditions continue to spread across the state.
On Friday Burgum visited with first responders in Billings County as he and his staff surveyed the damage. While in Medora, Burgum met with and thanked emergency services personnel representing more than 20 agencies who remain in an active battle with the wildfire.
“We are deeply grateful to the Billings County and Medora fire departments, the North Dakota National Guard, the U.S. Forest Service, North Dakota Forest Service, North Dakota Department of Emergency Services, National Park Service, and all the other local, state and federal team members and volunteers who collaborated to keep the wildfire contained and residents safe,” Burgum said.
Burgum added, “Because of their quick action, teamwork and communication, the wildfires were contained, saving lives and property, including historic Medora. As drought conditions persist, we will continue to keep resources at the ready and encourage North Dakotans to observe burn bans and follow safety protocols to prevent wildfires.”
During a press conference held Friday in Medora against the backdrop of scorched hills and the Hollywood-esque sign reading 'Medora' at the Burning Hills Amphitheatre, Burgum noted that the area burned by wildfires so far this year in North Dakota had surpassed 30,000 acres – more than triple the entirety of 2020.
Eight counties in the state experienced wildfires on Thursday alone.
The Billings County fire was about 50% contained Friday afternoon and had burned more than 3,000 acres but resulted in no injuries, deaths or lost structures, Burgum noted.
A Red Flag Warning was instated at 1 p.m. and lasted through 8 p.m. CDT, as low relative humidity and above average temperatures are carried by northwestern winds in what fire service personnel said could "aid in the rapid spread of fires or reignition of already controlled areas."
The North Dakota Department of Emergency Services announced their request for a temporary flight restriction from the Federal Aviation Administration as local, state and federal agencies worked to contain the wildfire.
Pilots of manned and unmanned aircraft were asked not to fly within a radius of 10 nautical miles of the epicenter of the fire in Medora, as aircraft from the N.D. Civil Air Patrol, N.D. National Guard and U.S. Forest Service conduct wildfire response operations in the area.
This includes flying at altitudes from the surface to 5,000 feet above sea level.
The temporary flight restriction was instituted until 7 p.m. CT/6 p.m. MT on April 8, and is aimed to keep the area clear for response agencies and provide a safe environment since wildfire smoke has reduced visibility in the area. The temporary flight restriction may be changed, cancelled or extended based on the status of the wildfire and should conditions persist.
The ongoing Medora wildfire is one of multiple wildfires affecting North Dakota and South Dakota as nearly half of each state faces extreme drought conditions — a condition exasperated by unusually low snow fall during the winter months.
A grass fire in Dickinson on Friday was quickly extinguished by firefighters from Dickinson Fire Department, Dickinson Rural Fire Department with the assistance of Dickinson Police Department and North Dakota Highway Patrol.
The fire claimed approximately 10 acres of grasslands behind Winn Construction on Dickinson's southside, with fire creeping onto South Main Avenue.
As affected areas of drought continue to grow, more than 20% from last week thanks to persistent dry conditions and high winds, fire dangers become increasingly a concern for local emergency management.
The Medora fire marks the second major fire in the area in the week, with a downed powerline causing a grass fire that spanned more than 3 miles outside Richardton on Tuesday.
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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