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Crews blast ice on Mo River to clear jam

BISMARCK (AP) -- A demolition crew blasted Missouri River ice Wednesday to force a thick ice jam to move south. Officials likened the move to pulling a giant plug to drain flood waters away from southwest Bismarck.

"We are cautiously optimistic," Bismarck Mayor John Warford said after the string of explosives went off in the river ice about 4 p.m.

Officials should have a better assessment later Wednesday, but the river's water appeared to be moving south after the blasts, Warford said.

Greg Wilz, North Dakota's homeland security director, said the demolition crew drilled 80 holes in the river ice to set the clay-like charges along a 500-foot stretch just south of the ice jam. The team got help from the National Guard, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard.

Each charge of C-4 explosive weighed more than a pound, Wilz said.

He called the effort to free the ice jam "a partial success."

"The ice started moving," Wilz said. "We would like to have a controlled flush because we don't want to cause problems for people downstream."

Wilz said a second set of explosives could be set later Wednesday. The ice could be salted to help speed its breakup, he said. Officials are also contemplating whether to use backhoes with long extensions to break up sheets of ice near the river's west bank.

"Get water moving. That's what is key here. Get the water moving. It will erode the ice and, hopefully, start moving more stuff downriver," Wilz said.

Police say at least 1,700 people have been evacuated from Bismarck neighborhoods that took on water because of the stubborn ice, which forced river water to back up onto nearby land. Fox Island, which has several dozen upscale homes, was flooded.

The Missouri's ice jam is caused by huge chunks, many the size of cars, that were forced into the river from its Heart River tributary, said Roger Kay, an Army Corps of Engineers expert on ice jams. Kay said the Missouri River's downstream ice appeared to be weakening late Wednesday.

"The ice is showing signs of becoming more rotten," Kay said. "It is starting to melt out and weaken There's less resistance then in those areas, so that ice can continue to shove out and move downstream."

Bob and Cheryl Wetsch, who live along the Missouri River, watched the explosion from about a half-mile away, from their living room. Cheryl Wetsch called it "anticlimactic" and her husband said "I guess I was expecting a bigger boom."

Bob Wetsch said the Missouri River clogged on Sunday after a "football field-size chunk of ice" got stuck on a sandbar at a bend in the river.

He and neighbors and the Coast Guard were watching the demolition along the river, which was about 15 feet from Wetsch's back door. Ice chunks stuck out like a moonscape.

Bob Wetsch said he has lived in the home since 1976, and has never seen the river at higher levels. Spring flooding along the Missouri was fairly common until the early 1950s, when the Garrison Dam was completed about 60 miles north of Bismarck.