MEDORA, N.D. — Wildfires continued their destruction through the night around the Billings County town of Medora. Fires forced evacuations of more than 130 residents and businesses on Thursday, April 1, and by night fall had been contained by about 15%.
Firefighting efforts continued through the night and into the second day Friday, April 2, with firefighting assistance being provided by the North Dakota National Guard, local and regional fire services.
According to emergency responders at the scene, the estimated destruction by nightfall of the first day resulted in nearly 3,000 acres being burnt, including much of the perimeter of Medora and neighboring Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Destruction estimates and containment by sunrise were at 50%, as emergency services remained focused on continuing their efforts of halting the wildfire.
New estimates have greatly reduced the Day 1 estimates of nearly 10,000 acres, with the Billings County Sheriff's Office confirming that recalculated estimates are more approximate.
The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but sources on the ground in Medora attribute the fire to a downed power line and strong winds. While much of the surrounding area was claimed by fire, the amphitheater where the Medora Musical is held was not damaged. Fire service personnel confirmed that in addition to the Chateau de Mores, the amphitheater was a priority area.
"Right now we're calling it 50% contained, and it was a very difficult fight through the night because of the topography the fire was in with how rugged the Badlands are," Major Dean Wyckoff, Billings County Sheriff's Office, said. "It was hard to get an estimate initially, I believe we overestimated it yesterday and looking at a map with some of the on-site leaders involved we have come up with a more accurate figure of 3,000 acres."
Wyckoff confirmed to The Dickinson Press that there were no significant structural damage or injuries Thursday night, and that concerns are now focused on the remaining fire which is located in difficult terrain. The evacuation order for Medora residents was lifted late Thursday night allowing residents to return to their homes.
"It's difficult to get a really accurate number because of the smoke and topography, but I think we're making good progress at the moment," he said.
A Red Flag Warning is expected to be in effect starting 1 p.m. and lasting through 8 p.m. CDT on Friday, 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."
Michael Kasian, chairman of the Billings County Commission, declared a state of emergency. The Emergency Declaration is expected to remain in effect until rescinded by the Billings County Commission at any special or regular meeting called for that purpose.
The City of Medora issued a statement on Thursday evening.
"We are so grateful for the men and women of the area’s firefighting service, sheriff’s department, forest service, national guard and other emergency services who responded to the fires in Medora today," the statement read. "Your professionalism, skill and courage preserved some of our most cherished locations and the example you set today is one that the entire state can be proud of. As you continue to battle the blaze outside of town, we want to say thank you to all of the first responders!"
Rep. Kelly Armstrong, North Dakota's lone member of the U.S. House and Dickinson native, issued a statement on the fire.
"I am grateful that there were no injuries or significant structural damage last night in Billings County," the statement read. "Thank you to our first responders who continue to battle this blaze and keep our families safe."
Longtime Medora resident Joe Wiegand said he was grateful to announce that the Chateau de Mores faced no threat from the remaining fires.
"I have a tremendous vantage point very nearby the historic Chateau De Mores State Historic Site. The Medora fire, in my opinion poses no immediate threat to the city or inhabitants of Medora. Certainly this fire has been extensive and serious and any reports of damage or loses to property will come from those who know," said Joe Wiegand, a longtime Medora resident and active Theodore Roosevelt impersonator. "I can tell you that the Chateau is 100% OK. Its roof was watered down and it was never directly threatened by fire."
Wiegand added, "We came close on this one. Thank heavens and the Sheila Shield, and thanks for first responders and firefighters from Medora, Billings County, and throughout southwestern North Dakota."
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. CST/6 p.m. MST 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.
Following an emergency alert system message calling for the evacuation of homes and businesses in the city of Medora on Thursday, sources inside the town confirmed with The Dickinson Press that some residents remained behind at critical historic sites to assist in preserving those locations. Many spent the day on Thursday in makeshift bucket brigades, pouring water on buildings nearest the fire.
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.
"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.
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.
The affected area of drought has grown by close to 20% from last week thanks to persistent dry conditions and high winds, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
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.
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 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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