In northwest Divide County, the site of a Cold War-era base is all but returned to the prairie.

Full reclamation of the once sprawling Fortuna Air Force Station hinges on grass seeding of an inert waste disposal pit, hampered this year by the statewide drought.

"The North Dakota Department of Health won't close the inert land disposal until there's grass growing back on top of it," Divide County State's Attorney Seymour Jordan said.

Divide County Commissioner Doug Graupe said a contractor's seeding in July didn't take, but county workers later seeded again and are continuing some cleanup. Full reclamation is likely for 2018, Jordan said.

He's handled issues of reclamation at the site since he entered office in 2014. Divide County initially acquired the site from lapsed tax payments.

Reclamation began with help from federal funding after Graupe met with then-North Dakota Sens. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad in Washington, D.C.

Demolishing dozens of buildings, recycling and hauling away materials were all part of the process, now stymied at 99 percent complete, Jordan said.

The isolated base was activated in 1952 as a radar facility during the Cold War. Among its many operations until partial deactivation in 1979, Fortuna AFS managed long-range and height-finder radar, data and backup systems. The site was decommissioned and abandoned in 1984 after some modified radar use.

Over the years, 118 buildings came to stand on the 124-acre site along State Highway 5 just west of Fortuna, population 22.

All that remains of the base is its prominent five-story radar tower, which once held a 70-ton antenna that blew down in a wind storm in 1964.

Today, the blocky concrete tower is home to local wireless services.

Retired Tech. Sgt. Don Erstad said Fortuna AFS holds many good memories for him. He was stationed there for radar maintenance from 1961-64 and again from 1973-75.

"The duty was pretty good as far as being a remote site like that," he said. "I worked with a lot of good people."

Erstad retired in 1981 after tours in Thailand, Iceland and elsewhere. He returned to Fortuna in 2005 for a reunion but hasn't been back.

"Fortuna ranked up pretty close to the top of my duty assignments," he said. "That was one of my better ones just because I liked my job and I liked the people I worked with and I got along real well with the local community."

Kayla Rust drove past the base every day on the way to school in Westby, Mont. She grew up nearby in Alkabo, population 5 or 7, depending on when she and her brother visit.

"I think what's most interesting is how it has just sat there for as long as it has," she said, recalling family stories of attending school with "Air Force base kids" who later all moved away.

In 2012, the base came up for review for the National Register of Historic Places, but was deemed ineligible. Damage and deterioration from 1980s salvage operations were to blame, as well as the loss of the base's visually distinctive radomes. 

Nevertheless, the site will be memorialized locally.

Graupe has drafted two large signs to inform motorists about the Fortuna AFS history and layout. 

"At this point, the history remains in the area's people and stories, and not the buildings," Rust said.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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Crime and Courts Reporter