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National Park North Unit wildfire triples in size; Medora-area fire fully contained

National Park North Unit wildfire triples in size; Medora-area fire fully contained

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TRNP Fire Arnegard Fire Protection District (2)

A fire that began Saturday in McKenzie County and entered the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park tripled in size Sunday.

A wildfire that has shut down the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park tripled in size on Easter during another day of record heat and dry, blustery conditions in western North Dakota.

Meanwhile, crews on Monday fully contained a fire in the area of the park's South Unit that prompted the evacuation of the tourist town of Medora last Thursday.

Crews worked through the night on the North Unit fire -- dubbed the Horse Pasture Fire -- trying to get a handle on the blaze that is now 3,000 acres, or more than 4 ½ square miles, according to Beth Hill, acting outreach and education manager for the North Dakota Forest Service.

"Much of the infrastructure and campgrounds in the North Unit are still at risk at this time," she said Monday.

The fire was considered 30% contained. Structures at risk included the park's visitor center and the CCC Campground across the Little Missouri River to the south of the park. The park unit is south of Watford City in McKenzie County and encompasses a rugged and scenic stretch of the Badlands.

"This fire is difficult to suppress just due to the terrain and inaccessibility," Hill said. "Many local fire departments have responded, including some from Montana. Farmers and ranchers nearby have also stepped in to help."

Two air tankers also were brought in from South Dakota over the weekend to help fight the northern fire.

How the fire started hasn't been determined, but it likely was caused by a person, according to Hill.

The blaze in the South Unit area was started by a sagging power line. It burned 2,276 acres, or about 3 ½ square miles. No structures were damaged in that fire. The affected area remains closed for public safety. The closure impacts the Buffalo Gap Trail from Interstate 94 southeast to its intersection with the Maah Daah Hey Trail, and the Maah Daah Hey from the National Park boundary south to Sully Creek State Park.

No wildlife losses have been documented in the Badlands due to either wildfire, according to U.S. Forest Service Northern Region spokesman Dan Hottle. The state Game and Fish Department also is not aware of any, according to Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams.

"There would have obviously been some movements of critters moving out of the area but likely not any significant losses, if any at all," he said. 

There also are no known livestock losses, according to North Dakota Stockmen's Association Executive Vice President Julie Ellingson.

No people have been seriously injured in any wildfires in the state, though two Williston firefighters had a close call over the weekend. The two were in a brush truck that was overtaken by flames when the wind shifted while they were helping battle a blaze north of the city. The firefighters were able to safely evacuate, but the truck was destroyed. A brush truck is a smaller fire response truck that can operate off-road.

The Saturday fire scorched 2,000 acres, or about 3 square miles, according to city spokeswoman Caitlin Pallai. Fire crews and officials from nearly a dozen agencies responded.

Record heat marked the weekend, with temperatures rising into the 70s and 80s. Bismarck and Dickinson tied or set record highs for the dates on Saturday and Sunday. The previous highs on Sunday had stood for 109 years, and Bismarck's previous high on Saturday had lasted for an even 100 years.

Western North Dakota was not in a red flag warning area on Monday, though the National Weather Service said "near-critical" fire weather conditions existed, with low humidity and winds gusting to around 20 mph. A red flag warning was posted for a wide swath of south central and southeastern North Dakota, with low humidity and winds gusting up to 40 mph.

The National Weather Service forecast called for a chance of rain in far southern North Dakota on Tuesday, and a chance of rain or snow in the east on Wednesday. But any measurable precipitation appeared remote, with the brunt of storm systems moving into the central U.S. this week expected to stay to the south and east of North Dakota, according to AccuWeather.

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. That has elevated the wildfire danger.

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. Most counties on Monday were in the "high" fire danger category, though there were scattered counties in the "very high" category. Gov. Doug Burgum on Friday warned the state is headed into a “tough fire season.”

For more information on fire safety, go to https://ndresponse.gov/public-awareness/fire-safety.

Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or blake.nicholson@bismarcktribune.com.

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