MEDORA, N.D. — Wildfires billowed in the North Dakota Badlands near Medora, forcing evacuations of residents and businesses, authorities with the U.S. Forest Service confirmed Thursday, April 1.

Following an emergency alert system message calling for the evacuation of homes and businesses in the city of Medora, a mass assistance call was placed for local, state and federal fire services to respond. Firefighters are battling the wildfire southwest of Medora, which has encroached on the city proper in increasing speeds.

As of 7 p.m. MDT, firefighters reported that 15% of the fire had been contained, coming at a lofty cost of an estimated 9,600 acres burned. Responders remarked that good progress on fire containment was being made in spite of difficult terrain and red flag conditions.

Sources inside the town confirmed with The Dickinson Press that the town proper suffered no significant structural damage from the fires, which could not be confirmed. 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, the bulk of the fire remained an ongoing fight and changing wind directions could pose significant risk to Medora throughout the night, according to fire personnel.

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Gov. Doug Burgum declared a statewide wildfire emergency on Thursday, enabling the North Dakota National Guard to deploy two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters with water buckets to help fight the Billings County wildfire.

Bill Palanuk, with the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame in Medora, said every effort is being made to preserve historical portions of the 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."

Joe Weigand, a Medora resident, provided an update from inside the town.

"We're doing OK. The fire seems at present time to be significantly under control, with the caveat that from my vantage point about 150 yards north of the Chateau de Mores I can see smoke that is getting thicker and seems to be originating from the northern portion of what is the projected presidential library campus," Weigand said in a phone interview. "There are some vehicles heading up the hill now towards the western end of the western edge of the amphitheater parking lot, and I have from my vantage point a view of the Tjaden Terrace, which is the big pitchfork fondue facility and that seems to be entirely intact and undamaged."

According to Weigand, 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."

With smoke from the fire reducing visibility, eastbound and westbound lanes of Interstate 94 were 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.

Dickinson firefighters were standing ready to respond to the fires, but had not received a request for aid from the Medora scene command.

"As of now we have not been requested," Dickinson Fire Chief Jeremy Presnell said. "They are aware that we are willing and able to send a crew if needed."

Before declaring an emergency, Burgum had put the National Guard on standby Thursday to help fight wildfires.

"North Dakota must be prepared to respond to wildland fires during periods of ongoing dry conditions and drought patterns. At this time, North Dakota has an elevated spring and summer fire potential; a significant number of fires have occurred to date,” Burgum said in a notice to Maj. Gen. Al Dohrmann, adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard. “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. The North Dakota National Guard has the resources we may need to support those firefighting efforts.”

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

Extreme conditions

This week, multiple wildfires have sprouted around North Dakota. 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 wildfires have struck 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.