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Nelson still recovering from physical, emotional scars of near death experience

FORT YATES, N.D. -- As biting winds whip through Fort Yates this winter, one resident pulls tight on the strings of her fleece stocking cap to protect the new layer of skin on her cheek.

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Sonja Olson Nelson

FORT YATES, N.D. -- As biting winds whip through Fort Yates this winter, one resident pulls tight on the strings of her fleece stocking cap to protect the new layer of skin on her cheek.

The burns on the left side of Sonja Olson Nelson's face have nearly healed 2 1/2 months after she escaped the flames that threatened to end her life in Cannon Ball, N.D. Though her scars are fading, the new skin remains sensitive to the harsh winter elements.

The burns on her elbows are still visible. Coconut oil helps a bit, as do the essential oils prepared for her by a coworker.

"Burns hurt worse than natural childbirth," Olson Nelson said. "Some days, I wanted to just rip out my skin because it itched so bad."

Much of Olson Nelson's life has returned to the way it was before the afternoon of Oct. 11, when she drove up a smoky stretch of N.D. Highway 1806 and ran into a vehicle stopped sideways. The car drove off, leaving her stranded and running for her life trying to flee the wildfire that surrounded her on either side of the road.

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Two volunteer firefighters from nearby Solen entered the blaze, which combined with another fire to burn 5,000 acres. The firefighters spotted her and brought her to an ambulance, which took her from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to a Bismarck hospital.

Olson Nelson recovered enough to return to her job a month later at Standing Rock Middle School, where she is a social worker.

She's wearing her Fitbit again but had to go without the fitness-tracking device for weeks because it smelled so strongly of smoke.

As for her small Chevrolet Aveo, it's a total loss. She recently bought a larger Nissan Murano but was stuck using a compact rental car for a while.

"I had so much stress driving in that," she said. "I just can't do small anymore."

Passing the spot on the highway also bothers her, as does driving near big white cars like the one stopped on the highway amid the blaze. She still has nightmares that started haunting her after the crash.

In the face of those hardships, Olson Nelson is grateful to the firefighters who saved her life and thankful for the support of loved ones and strangers.

Students at her school made floats to raise money for the expenses she has accrued since the fire. A woman at Denny's recognized her from a photo with a story in the Bismarck Tribune and paid for her meal.

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"One of the things that blew me away was the love that people have," Olson Nelson said. "People come up and give me big hugs and say how grateful they are to see me and that I'm alive."

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