GRASSY BUTTE — Volunteers are the main line of defense in North Dakota’s Badlands as a wildfire raged into its third day Monday.
Rugged terrain and hot, windy conditions are keeping local volunteer firefighters on scene for up to 30 hours at a time as they work to prevent the fire from doing even more damage.
“You sleep when you can and, if not, you’ve just got to suck it up and keep going,” said Grassy Butte volunteer firefighter Darren Chernenko. “When these get out of hand like this, it can turn really bad fast. You have to do everything possible.”
The fire that started Saturday had affected about 5,100 acres as of Monday in Billings and McKenzie counties.
About 85 firefighters are responding from Billings and McKenzie county volunteer fire departments, the U.S. Forest Service, the North Dakota Forest Service and federal agencies, said Treva Slaughter, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service.
In addition to firefighters, local businesses and community members have volunteered to haul water to the remote area, keep trucks fueled and assist with road grading equipment.
“A fire of this magnitude, if we didn’t have everybody helping, would break the fire department budget,” said Karolin Jappe, McKenzie County's emergency manager.
As rural departments send personnel and equipment to fight the blaze, they’re mindful to keep some resources at home as dry conditions have increased the fire danger in western North Dakota.
“You never want to leave a district bare,” Jappe said.
In the past 10 days, McKenzie County has had about seven fires that started with a spark from farming equipment and one that started from fireworks, Jappe said. The cause of the wildfire, which has been dubbed the Magpie Fire, is unknown.
“This is just the beginning of the fire season,” Jappe said. “It is so doggone dry.”
Pat Rummel, emergency manager for Billings County, said the fire is putting a strain on volunteer resources.
“The volunteers, they have other jobs. This is just their volunteer work,” Rummel said.
Kelsea Arnold, of Grassy Butte, was among volunteers bringing food and water for the firefighters Monday. Arnold’s boyfriend, one of the firefighters, ranches north of the fire and they’re worried about their cattle and the possibility of the fire reaching their home.
“It’s been tough. I think this is kind of just the start of it,” Arnold said of the fire season.
The majority of the land affected is U.S. Forest Service Inventoried Roadless Area, but the fire has progressed to privately owned property as well, Slaughter said.
About 15 percent of the fire was contained as of Monday morning and no homes had been threatened, Slaughter said.
The Maah Daah Hey Trail system is closed between the Bennett and Elkhorn campgrounds.
Some firefighters missed work to fight the blaze, while some returned to their jobs after volunteering long hours. Arnegard Fire Chief Rick Schreiber said one member of his department went to work Monday night after volunteering.
“The biggest issue is the terrain,” Schreiber said. “It’s very, very tough terrain to work in.”
Chernenko, who lives in Bismarck but volunteers for the Grassy Butte department, said the wind switching directions added to the difficulty.
“With as windy as it is, it’s very tough,” Chernenko said. “Even if you do get it put out, you get hot spots that could reignite.”
He was on scene with his brother, Kyle Chernenko, chief for the Grassy Butte department, and their dad, Ron, a veteran member of the department, who was monitoring hot spots.
The volunteers expect to remain on scene “as long as it takes,” Darren Chernenko said.
“I leave when they say I’m done,” he said.