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Wildfires rage amid record heat; Williston firefighters have close call
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Wildfires rage amid record heat; Williston firefighters have close call

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Medora wildfire

A wildfire smolders near the Burning Hills Amphitheatre Thursday after the town of Medora was evacuated due to the fire threat.

Firefighters on Easter continued battling wildfires in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota, amid tinder-dry conditions and record heat.

Medora, which was evacuated for a time on Friday, was no longer in danger. The state Forest Service reported Sunday that the fire started by a sagging power line on Friday was about 85% contained. It had burned 2,276 acres, which is about 3 ½ square miles.

Separately on Saturday, a fire shut down the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. That fire on Sunday was about 30% contained and had burned about 1,000 acres, or about 1 ½ square miles, according to Beth Hill, acting outreach and education manager for the North Dakota Forest Service.

Two air tankers were brought in from South Dakota on Saturday to help fight that fire, which is in rough, inaccessible terrain. The visitor center was considered at risk, and the North Unit remained closed Sunday, along with the CCC Campground across the Little Missouri River to the south of the park.

Bismarck on Saturday had a record high temperature for the date, at 83 degrees -- 1 degree warmer than the previous record set 100 years ago, according to the National Weather Service. Dickinson hit 77, breaking that city's April 3 record of 74 set in 1988.

The western half of North Dakota remained under a red flag warning for critical fire weather conditions Sunday. High temperatures were expected to again be in the 70s and 80s, with low humidity and wind gusting to 35 mph, according to the weather service. The forecast calls for a chance of precipitation in various parts of the state Monday through Wednesday.

The entire state 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.

Members of the Williston Fire Department had a close call while helping fight a blaze north of the city Saturday.

One of the department's brush trucks was overtaken by the flames when the wind shifted. The firefighters inside were able to safely evacuate, but the truck was destroyed. A brush truck is a smaller fire response truck that can operate off-road.

Fire crews and officials from Grenora, Wildrose, Alamo, Minot, Fairview, Epping, Ray, Williston Rural and Williams County responded to the fire. The fire was contained Saturday night. The fire department did not say how large it was. The cause wasn't immediately determined.

U.S. Highway 2 was closed in the Williston area for a time Saturday. Another wildfire to the south prompted the closure and evacuation of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and the shutdown of U.S. Highway 85 in the area. Both highways were reopened Saturday night, but U.S. 85 was shut down again for a time Sunday afternoon, from Watford City to the junction of North Dakota Highway 200. For updates on road closures, go to travel.dot.nd.gov.

The wildfire area near Medora has been closed to the public, including segments of popular hiking and biking trails, but officials on Saturday lifted flight restrictions in the area.

The Maah Daah Hey Trail is closed from the boundary of Theodore Roosevelt National Park's South Unit west of downtown Medora to Sully Creek State Park farther south along the Little Missouri River. The Buffalo Gap Trail is closed from Interstate 94 several miles west of Medora to its intersection with the Maah Daah Hey southwest of town.

The closures ordered by the U.S. Forest Service are to protect public health and safety and will be in effect until further notice, according to the North Dakota Forest Service.

Meanwhile, in Mandan, firefighters were battling a blaze Sunday afternoon in the grass and trees along the Heart River south of the Fort Lincoln Trolley station. Fire Department Battalion Chief Jon Hildremyr said firefighters knocked down the flames and were mopping up the burned area in the evening so that the fire wouldn’t reignite overnight.

Officials estimate that 5 acres burned. The fire did not threaten any homes or businesses, and no one was injured, Hildremyr said. He was not sure what caused the fire.

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. All counties on Sunday were either in the "high" or "very high" fire danger 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.

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