As persistent and abnormally hot and dry conditions provided ample fuels for an active wildfire season, the North Dakota Forest Service and North Dakota Department of Emergency Services recently initiated a program aimed at augmenting the state’s firefighting capabilities and resources.

According to data collected by the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services and North Dakota Forest Service, nearly 1,700 fires have scorched more than 112,000 acres across the state since January 2021. That total, which is the equivalent of about 170 square miles, is compiled through reports from local emergency managers and 9-1-1 calls, as well as historical data from the Integrated Reporting of Wildland-Fire Information (IRWIN) system used by fire departments.

Wildfire in Medora caused thousands of acres of damage in May, in conditions still present on July 1. (Josiah C. Cuellar / The Dickinson Press)
Wildfire in Medora caused thousands of acres of damage in May, in conditions still present on July 1. (Josiah C. Cuellar / The Dickinson Press)

The newly formed Task Force was adopted to allow local fire departments the ability to respond outside their jurisdictions, without the requirement for a request and if needed. Departments that volunteer will coordinate directly with the Forest Service to preposition personnel and equipment for any potential state wildfire suppression missions.

“The rapid development of the North Dakota wildland fire task force once again highlights our state’s creativity and willingness to help one another in a time of need,” Tom Claeys, North Dakota State Forester, said. “We greatly appreciate fire departments working together to enhance firefighter and public safety.”

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Fire departments generally can volunteer to be assigned to the wildland fire task force for weeklong increments consisting of 12-hour shifts. The length of those assignments can be extended up to 21 days.

The Williston and Kindred fire departments and Dickinson Rural Fire Department will demobilize today after 11 days on standby in the initial rounds of shifts.

Under the wildland fire task force, the Williston Fire Department had the chance to respond to a fire July 26 in an area east of Williston. The fire, estimated to be about 50 to 100 acres, was rekindled from a fire earlier in the day within the Williston Rural Fire Department’s district. Both Williston Rural and the Williston Fire Department were able to work with one another to suppress the fire.

“It’s been a great opportunity; I just think it’s a great thing for our state,” Clint Bates, captain with the Williston Fire Department, said. “I’m originally from the West Coast, and then I was in Montana before I came up here, and the departments I’ve worked for in the past have had a strong relationship with their states. I think it’s really important for our state to grow this program so that we have these resources to do this.”

Bates was part of a North Dakota task force that supported the wildfire response in western Oregon in September 2020. The group included 17 firefighters from the Minot, Williston, Grand Forks and Fargo fire departments and was assembled after sourcing and coordination through Emergency Services and the Forest Service.

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. (Josiah C. Cuellar / The Dickinson Press)
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. (Josiah C. Cuellar / The Dickinson Press)

North Dakota has a long history of providing EMAC (emergency management assistance compact) support to other states. This summer, however, drought conditions have required more robust support to manage wildfire activity in North Dakota — limiting the availability of fire services on a national level.

“Wildfire resources nationwide have been severely stretched during a very active fire season, particularly in the western portion of the U.S.,” Amy Anton, Emergency Services Response Section chief, said. “But anytime North Dakotans work together to solve problems and face challenges — including when facing a drought coupled with a prolonged wildfire season — our emergency management partners are able to use out-of-the-box thinking to come up with innovative strategies to protect our communities.”

In 2021, North Dakota has recorded more than 1,700 fires which have scorched more than 112,000 acres.

To learn more about fire safety and to access burn ban and fire danger maps for local counties, visit the NDResponse website. Communities also can consult with their local fire department or emergency management office for the most current information regarding restrictions in their area.

Listen to this story and more here: