SHIELDS - To outsiders, the town of Shields wasn't much to look at: Lots of vacant buildings. About 15 hardy souls still willing to call it home. A bar, two churches and a post office.
Death had been knocking at this town's door for some time, but on Saturday, it came barging in. Ignited by lightning, a grass fire blackened the town and reduced to rubble all but a handful of its buildings.
To people like Vern Harsche, the town may not have been much, but it was home.
On Sunday, about all that was left of his still-smoking hometown was the bar, post office and a stately two-story home. They were surrounded by heaps of smoldering wreckage dotting every dirt block, unrecognizable for what they had once been.
On the outskirts of town, a salvage yard was now a charred, blackened vehicle graveyard.
On the opposite end of town, concrete steps led to a pit of hot wreckage, rather than the Catholic church it had been.
Next door, a log home seemed to have disintegrated.
Across the street, a hog barn was reduced to rubble.
Down the street, the home of Mary Louise Defender Wilson was gone, except for a burning basement. Defender Wilson, a well-known Dakotah-Hidatsa storyteller, said she managed to escape with few possessions after the wind switched directions and blew the grass fire toward Shields.
"People were coming by, telling me to get out," she said. "We only had a couple of minutes. All of the photographs of me and my family, I didn't have time to take them off the walls. I don't think I'll realize what I lost until time goes on."
Across town, the Lutheran church fell too.
And then there, right in the middle of town, surrounded by devastation, stood a proud, square little building about the size of a shed. The post office. Untouched.
The bar was also unscathed. The dirt roads surrounding it helped buffer the fire, and probably saved the place.
"If there's a post office and a bar, a community will survive," Harsche said hopefully. But, he admitted, the parched prairies had already made it tough on the town.
On Sunday afternoon, people were beginning to congregate outside the bar. It had been the community's focal point before the fire. Now it was a lifeline.
"The community is tight," Harsche said. "The people that are here are probably your best friends in the world."
Many of the buildings in Shields - an estimated 30 altogether - had long been abandoned, and on this day, it was a good thing: Any living creatures would have disintegrated with the buildings.
It was the people that made the town special, Harsche said, and they were all accounted for.
"I don't think this'll kill this town," he said. "The ones that can afford to, they'll stick around."
Northeast of Shields, on the northern tip of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, Paul Thomas groggily watched as firefighters returned to his farm to douse hot spots Sunday morning.
About 800 acres of his pasture land had already burned.
As if firefighters didn't have enough on their hands, something -Êhe suspects an electrical problem -Êtriggered a fire in one of his barns Saturday afternoon.
"Any darn thing could have started it," Thomas said as he watched the firefighters. "The wind and the heat are just like gasoline."
He said he hasn't had a good rain since last July. He figures he's gotten .80 of an inch of rain since spring.
"We won't get no hay," he said. "The oats and wheat is all burning up."
Now, he was worried about his cattle. And what July and August would bring.
On Saturday night, he slept -Êor tried to sleep -Êin his tractor so he could keep an eye on the fire, which was under control by 3 a.m.
"You can't sleep when your farm is in jeopardy," he said.
New fires erupt
To the south of Thomas' farm, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service fire management officer Gary Lindsay saw the fire - a new grass fire - just as it was beginning to spit out of the ground near a house a few miles north of Fort Yates.
Soon the flames were 25 feet high, he estimated.
Two National Guard UH-1H (Huey) helicopters were brought in to help control the grass fire - which threatened several houses - by dipping huge orange buckets into the nearby Missouri River and dropping 200 gallons of water per trip.
The cause of that fire was unknown, but Faron Krueger of the U.S. Forest Service said children were reportedly seen playing with fireworks in the area.
As of late Sunday afternoon, officials said the grass fires had burned about 7,000 acres, less than original estimates of 15,000. The governor spent the day in the area, and was among scores of people from eight local, state and federal agencies battling the blazes on the ground, in the air and from the command center.
"This was a tough situation down here before with our farmers and ranchers being so dry," Gov. John Hoeven said. "This just makes it tougher."
(The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Deena Winter at 250-8251 or email@example.com.)