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Medora evacuated for wildfire; Burning Hills Amphitheatre threatened but spared

Medora evacuated for wildfire; Burning Hills Amphitheatre threatened but spared

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A wildfire threatened the western North Dakota tourist town of Medora on Thursday, and authorities ordered the 100 residents to evacuate.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or damaged structures, and the flames spared the Burning Hills Amphitheatre, home to the Medora Musical, though they did sweep through the nearby Medora Cemetery.

"Firefighters were actively working the east flank of the fire, trying to keep it out of any structures in (that) area," U.S. Forest Service spokesman Rob Schilling said.

The fire continued to burn into the evening, and authorities shut down Interstate 94 from Belfield to Beach, a stretch of about 45 miles. The fire was considered only about 15% contained as of 7:10 p.m. local time, but crews had the forward progress of the fire stopped and the containment percentage was expected to start rising, according to Misty Hayes, district ranger for the Medora Ranger District of the Little Missouri National Grassland. The interstate reopened about 8:45 p.m. local time.

"Things are going pretty good," she said. "Looks like things are kind of settling down a little bit."

Crews were to remain on the scene through the night.

Gov. Doug Burgum, who earlier on Thursday had put the National Guard on standby to help fight wildfires if needed, declared a statewide wildfire emergency, enabling the Guard to send two Black Hawk helicopters with water buckets to help fight the Billings County blaze. Numerous other local, state and federal agencies also responded.

The fire began shortly before 1:30 p.m. local time, according to Billings County Chief Deputy Maj. Dean Wyckoff.

"It was an electrical line that sagged and arced and started the fire,” he said.

The blaze started a few miles southwest of the town, with the wind blowing the flames toward the community, according to Hayes. By early evening the fire had grown to about 9,600 acres, or about 15 square miles.

There were no immediate reports of injuries to people, or of any livestock injuries or losses.

"I don't think there are any ranches in the path at this point," Hayes said.

Authorities notified Medora residents through a reverse-911 phone system, and Medora police also went door to door. Wyckoff said residents were directed to go to the nearby communities of Belfield or Beach. He didn't immediately know how many did so.

Roger Dieterle, a retired pastor who lives south of Medora, was driving west from Bismarck and saw the fire’s smoke from Dickinson to Beach. The fire started within a mile of his home, which he said wasn’t in danger. He called the fire "a huge tragedy."

“We just pray for safety for everybody that’s involved,” he said.

Medora is on the doorstep of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It's a small community of stores and shops with a Western feel. It's also home to the Medora Musical, which performs all summer in the outdoor amphitheater on the edge of town.

Wyckoff said firefighters did “back-burn operations” on the west side of the Little Missouri River below the Chateau de Mores State Historic Site near Medora and fire protection at amphitheater structures. He didn't think the amphitheater was any longer in danger.

Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation Chief Marketing Officer Justin Fisk said the amphitheater is the only foundation facility in the area of the fire.

“The fire started southwest of it, and kind of moved up and kind of went around and near, very near the theater, as far as we can tell from reports, and stopped to the north of it, at this time," he said.

Foundation President Randy Hatzenbuhler said he planned to drive to Medora on Thursday evening.

Hayes said officials were hoping the Little Missouri River on the western side of the town would stop the fire's advance. Firefighters also were working to hold the fire south of Interstate 94.

Firefighters spray water after a fire burned through the hills near the near the Burning Hills Amphitheatre Thursday after the town of Medora was evacuated due to the fire threat.

Wind in the area was blowing from the south-southwest at about 15 mph, with gusts nearly double that, according to National Weather Service data.

Fire departments responded from Billings County, Medora, Beach, Golva, Sentinel Butte, South Heart, Belfield, Dickinson and Wibaux, Montana. The National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service also responded. Firefighters from Colorado who brought two wildland fire engines to North Dakota through a state compact also were at the scene, according to Schilling.

The fire sent up huge plumes of smoke. Sentinel Butte-area rancher Barbara Olstad said she could see it from 10 miles away.

Cross Ranch fire

A wildfire destroyed a railroad trestle bridge and burned 150-200 acres near Cross Ranch State Park on Thursday afternoon.

Washburn Assistant Fire Chief Travis Verke said the fire started north of a farmstead in a field and moved quickly north-northeast, going through pastureland and unseeded cropland and ravines and coulees along the railroad bed.

It's unclear whether the farm is occupied. It's unknown what caused the fire. 

Fire near Cross Ranch

Fire destroyed a railroad trestle bridge near Cross Ranch State Park Thursday.

"It's very dry conditions. It could have been anything," Verke said. The cause will be investigated.

Firefighters stopped the blaze about half a mile south of the park.

"We pinched it off between the railroad and the riverbank," Verke said.

The fire call came in about 2:45 p.m. local time Firefighters from Center, Mandan and Washburn responded and were on scene from 3-7:30 p.m.

No injuries resulted from the fire.

A dry spring

All of North Dakota is in some form of drought, with extreme drought covering almost all of the west, according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor map, posted Thursday. That has elevated the wildfire danger, with nearly all of the state considered at “very high” risk and Billings County in the “extreme” risk category.

Wildfires have burned more than 30,000 acres in North Dakota already this spring, compared with fewer than 10,000 all of last year. Nearly all counties have implemented some form of outdoors burning restrictions.

A National Weather Service red flag warning for critical fire weather conditions was in effect Thursday, with low humidity and gusty winds persisting across the state. The state forecast calls for no precipitation through at least the start of next week.

(Reporter Amy R. Sisk contributed to this story.)

The sun sets over the badlands after a fire burned through the hills near the Burning Hills Amphitheatre Thursday after the town of Medora was evacuated due to the fire threat.

Fire crews respond to the wildfire near Medora Thursday evening.

Hot spots burn bright as darkness sets in the hills near Medora.

Firefighters near Medora after a fire swept through and threatened the town, forcing its evacuation.

Firefighters near Medora after a fire swept through and threatened the town, forcing its evacuation.

A National Guard Black Hawk helicopter with a water bucket helps fight the Billings County blaze Thursday near Medora.

A fire truck passes by the entrance to the Medora Cemetery which was charred by the wildfire Thursday.

A National Guard Black Hawk helicopter drops water on a fire Thursday evening near exit 24 on Interstate 94 near Medora. Video taken by North Dakota Highway Patrol Troopers.

North Dakota Highway Patrol Troopers shot this video while helping with traffic control on I-94 near exit 24.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-223-8482 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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