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Assessing Bucyrus: Residents return

Trevor Wyman carries a safe Thursday morning after helping recover it from the charred rubble that used to be the home of Mike and Evelyn Krug in Bucyrus. A fire devastated the small southwest North Dakota town Wednesday.2 / 2

BUCYRUS -- Nothing could prepare Christina Wiskus for what she saw Thursday morning in the aftermath of a wildfire that devastated this small Adams County town.

This was the same town that was home to her mother, Linda Wiskus, and her brother, Justin, and the town where she spent her high school years. All that was left of her family's home after Wednesday's wind-fueled fire was a foundation and a pile of charred rubble.

"Their whole lives are gone," Christina Wiskus said while attempting to fight back tears. "There's nothing left and it all happened in a matter of hours."

The Wiskus home was one of four occupied houses in the town that were burned to the ground. Three additional vacant houses and a total of 24 structures were destroyed in the blaze, which started along Highway 12 in the early afternoon hours Wednesday, a few miles west of Hettinger.

Officials said there were no reports of injuries. The U.S. Forest Service, which is assisting in the firefighting efforts along with a number of other agencies, estimated the fire to have burned nearly 6,000 acres.

"This is like a nightmare," Linda Wiskus said. "I wouldn't wish this on anyone. When I came home from work (at about 4:45 p.m. Wednesday), we were told we had to evacuate. We had about 15 minutes to get what we could. I grabbed a safe, a pair of jeans and some socks -- I didn't have time to get anything else."

The fire was mostly contained sometime after midnight, said Adams County officials, though firefighters -- some who worked through the night -- were continuing to check for hotspots on Thursday. In addition to the structural damage, the fire scorched nearly every utility pole between Bucyrus -- a town of 27 -- and the intersection of Highway 12 and Highway 22, about a three-mile stretch.

Adams County Commission Chairman Chuck Christman said at a press conference Thursday that two abandoned farms burned, but the Bucyrus Lutheran Church, the town's grain elevator and seven homes were left intact. Surrounded by warzone-like destruction, the church appeared unscathed.

"You had to be there (Wednesday night) to really imagine what went on," Christman said. "We really appreciate what the firefighters and volunteers did. This could have been a much worse disaster."

Reeder City Fire Department co-Chief Bruce Hagen added that he had never witnessed a similar fire in his 15 years as a firefighter.

Bucyrus resident Josh Stang was at work when the fire started Wednesday afternoon at about 2 p.m. Stang was able to briefly return Wednesday night to his home, surrounded by charred leftovers of his neighbors' houses, but did not locate his dog, Sky, until Thursday morning.

"I got lucky," Stang said from the deck of his untouched home. "I feel blessed, but overwhelmed at the same time. It's surreal right now. I've lived in this town my entire life. These are my neighbors and friends."

Mike and Evelyn Krug -- who moved to Bucyrus in 1968 -- returned at about 9:30 a.m. Thursday to find their home smoldering, only a foundation remaining.

"All I can say is Lord help me through this and I know he will," Evelyn said. "Seeing this, I don't ever want to come back here again. It's going to be a lot of cleanup."

As Evelyn spoke, her husband and several others scrounged through the rubble, looking for two safes, which they eventually located. Evelyn said the safes contained savings bonds and other legal documents and titles, but most of the couple's material possessions -- and nearly 45 years worth of memories in the home where their six children were raised -- were gone.

When asked how residents would move on from the devastating fire, Evelyn shook her head, voicing three words.

"I don't know."

Hettinger Mayor Steve Turner, also a volunteer firefighter, praised area farmers who helped contain the fire and applauded his town's residents, many of whom came to the aid of those displaced by the fire, offering lodging and food.

For Linda Wiskus -- who stood on a nearby hill and watched her house burn Wednesday night -- some lost items will never be replaced.

"All the things that were passed down to me over the years, they're all gone," Wiskus said. "I'm just happy that nobody was injured or killed. It was almost like a tornado, the way some homes were completely gone and some were left alone. I've never seen anything like it."

Several volunteer organizations, including the Red Cross and Salvation Army, joined residents and local officials in working nearly around the clock to help those affected, Adams County Emergency Manager Michele Marthaller said. As of Thursday afternoon, Christman said only those in Bucyrus were still without electricity and added that no livestock were lost in the blaze.

A portion of Highway 12 between Hettinger and Reeder was closed to the public Wednesday night as red-hot embers skipped across the road and thick smoke caused near white-out conditions for emergency personnel.

Twelve area fire departments assisted in fighting the blaze and officials estimated nearly five dozen firefighters were on scene at different times Wednesday and Thursday. Officials said they did not have a monetary estimate for damage.

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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