The Mandan Rural Fire Department continued battling flareups north of Mandan on Tuesday afternoon.
The fire, which burned 75 to 100 acres as of Monday night could smolder within the trees for the next month.
The North Dakota Forest Service had monitored and controlled the flames overnight, cutting down burning trees and letting Mandan Rural rest up, fire manager Ryan Melin said.
But over a dozen volunteer firefighters, many of whom were at the scene the night before, were back Tuesday afternoon, standing in clusters. Some manned water tanks. Others drove into the smoke and poured water on the blaze.
Scorched black ground was dotted with tufts of golden grass and patches of gray ash. Cottonwood trees stood amid the burn; many smoked and dangled burning limbs. Smoke alternately barreled forward and relented with the winds. Grass crackled as it burned. Branches fell occasionally from their trunks with a soft crash.
One green house stood miraculously untouched amid the wasted ground.
Jacob Leingang, a 17-year-old junior firefighter, sprayed water on the sizzling ground with the help of Kyle Kirchmeier, a veteran firefighter and sheriff of Morton County.
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Kirchmeier aimed to protect any houses within the burning area and to put out edge fires, thereby quieting the smoke and allowing firefighters to extinguish some of the internal flames.
It’s a hard fire to put out, Kirchmeier commented, because there are few access roads in the rural area and the close trees make it hard to drive a truck in.
“You have to wait ‘til the fire gets to you,” he said.
Leingang, who usually pours concrete, not water, was eager to fight his first fire, like his family has. “It’s definitely an adrenaline rush,” he said.
Meanwhile, Tom Doering, Morton County emergency manager, drove around the fire surveying the wreckage and flare-ups. The combination of dryness, wind, and lots of fuel drove the fire, he said. Part of the burned area was an old feedlot, he said, which was covered in old manure. “That’s like coal, almost,” he said.
Doering was nervous that the fire might “jump the road” across 22nd Avenue and ignite the neighboring field.
He estimates that the fire could cost the county close to $15,000, when fuel, protective foam, and other resources are accounted for.
Fire season has started early this year, with fires also occurring in McKenzie and Burleigh counties and on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
“It’s way too early,” James Condon, fire management officer at BIA/Standing Rock Agency said. “I was hoping we’d get a lot of snow and rain.”
A 60-acre fire burned near Hawktree golf course last week. Two large fires, spanning 900 and 200 acres each have occurred in McKenzie County. Eighteen fires have occurred on Standing Rock already, burning a total of 70 acres, Condon said.
Cody Schulz, chairman of the Morton County Commission, says he is monitoring the fire situation “very closely” through the emergency management department, but things are “dry, dry, dry.”
Schulz said the county is using a three-pronged approach to handle the fires: prevention, notification, and coordination.
To prevent fires, the county has issued a burn ban, conducted educational programs for the public, and conducted training and exercises for local fire districts, he said.
The burn ban prohibits people from starting unenclosed fires. Controlled burns are still allowed, but only when coordinated with the fire district and physically monitored at all times.
To notify residents, the county has implemented alert systems, including Code Red and IPAWS, Schulz said.
The emergency management department coordinates shared resources, like the assistance of Bismarck Rural Fire Department Monday night, Schulz said.
The most expensive emergencies historically have been spring flooding, of which there has been little since 2011, Schulz said, but he fears that the continued dryness will bring more fires, which could increase emergency response costs.
Kevin Nelson, a farmer and rancher who has volunteered for Mandan Rural for the last 20 years, said he is usually waiting for the snow to come when he is battling a fire. “But we’re a long way from snow,” he said.