With nearly 2,400 wildfires this year, North Dakota heads into peak of fall fire season

"2021 could very well be in North Dakota a year where fires happen every month," said State Forester Tom Claeys.

Firefighters worked through the night battling a wildfire north of Wannagan Campground on the Little Missouri National Grassland. The fire is estimated at 4000 acres and is burning in the rugged North Dakota Badlands. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service - Dakota Prairie Grasslands)
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BISMARCK — Almost 2,400 wildfires have burned more than 125,000 acres of land across North Dakota in 2021 so far, and as the state is in the midst of its traditional fall fire season, the state is urging residents to take precautions to prevent wildfires.

Some of the state's largest wildfires have historically occurred in the fall, and depending on the weather and human behavior, North Dakota could very likely see even more acres burned in the coming months, said State Forester Tom Claeys.

"2021 could very well be in North Dakota a year where fires happen every month," Claeys said. "That could be the future of what North Dakota looks like depending on the weather patterns, depending on individual fire starts and people's behavior on the landscape."

About 90% of wildfires in North Dakota are human-caused, and North Dakota's extreme drought conditions have fueled wildfires to burn 10 times more acres in 2021 so far compared to the entirety of 2020. Traditionally, North Dakota's fire season occurs from late March to mid-April and then again in the fall from late September to mid-October.

Almost all North Dakota counties currently have burn restrictions, including the Standing Rock Reservation and Turtle Mountain Reservation, according to the Governor's Wildland Fire Dashboard.


Throughout September, wildfires have burned fewer acres compared to the extreme fires in the spring. Claeys said there haven't been extreme winds, which spread flames.

North Dakota had significant fires from late April and into early May. More than 9,800 acres were burned near Mandaree in the Little Swallow Fire on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in May. The fire burned for about nine days, according to the Governor's Wildland Fire Dashboard.

The second-largest fire in the state this year, the Roosevelt Creek Fire, occurred about 13 miles north of Medora in the Little Missouri National Grassland. It burned about 4,600 acres over about 12 days.

This year has been an especially potent year for wildfires, Claeys said, largely because of the mild winter the state experienced last year. Little snow fell, meaning materials that fuel wildfires, such as grass, did not get packed down or pressed to the ground. Much of it remained standing and dried out quickly, which created optimal tinder for fires.

Throughout 2021, North Dakota has been in an extraordinary drought that put strain on many farmers and ranchers. As of Thursday, Sept. 30, about 60% of the state was classified as being in an "extreme" drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Claeys said the drought hindered plant growth, meaning North Dakota currently has less fuel for potential wildfires. Going into the spring of 2021, there was substantial grass growth that helped spread wildfires, but North Dakota will likely have less of that going into the spring of 2022, he added.

When asked if he believed North Dakota would experience significant fires in the coming weeks, Claeys said it will depend on the weather and people's actions.

"Much of it will depend on our weather events. ... As long as farmers, ranchers and North Dakotans are being careful, that's a big deal," he said. "Fire prevention is extremely important this time of year."


To learn more about preventing wildfires, visit

Readers can reach reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at

Michelle (she/her, English speaker) is a Bismarck-based journalist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.
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