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A wildfire continues to burn in western North Dakota. Sydney Mook / Forum News Service

Temps, winds give firefighters fits as western ND wildfire burns rugged terrain

GRASSY BUTTE, N.D. -- Firefighters battled a wildfire stretching across two counties in western North Dakota for the third day on Monday, July 10, with little hope in sight of when the blaze will finally be out.

As of Monday afternoon, the U.S. Forest Service said the fire, dubbed the “Magpie Fire,” was about 15 percent contained and consumed about 5,100 acres. About 60 percent of the fire is in McKenzie County and the rest is in Billings County.

Roughly 90 percent of the fire was in a Forest Service “inventoried roadless area,” or undeveloped land. No homes were being threatened by the fire, although it had progressed “through the rough country north into some private holdings,” the Forest Service said.

Douglas Nordby, chairman of the McKenzie County Commission, declared a fire emergency/disaster Monday, activating the response of “any and all applicable local disaster or emergency operational plans.”

The rough terrain of the area has made a huge impact on fighting the fire, said Darren Chernenko with the Grassy Butte Fire Department. The terrain is rugged, with many high buttes across the landscape and grasslands filling in the countryside. Evergreen trees could be seen going up in flames on Monday afternoon as firefighters attempted to contain the blaze.

“It’s so rough out here,” he said. “Radios often communicate by line of sight and if you have two buttes in the way of who you’re trying to communicate with you’re not going to be able to reach them. That’s why it’s so important for us to have the ATVs and the new six-wheeler. Those are just as important, if not more important, than the actual truck.”

The department recently purchased new equipment that would help them fight grass fires or fires on rough terrain, including a smaller six-wheeled vehicle, Chernenko said.

“Those vehicles are key to the success of putting out this kind of fire,” he said. “You can’t take a big old regular fire truck on all this rough stuff and expect to be able to get out and stuff like that.”

Chernenko said being able to do backlines and burnout spots has helped them fight the fire. Additionally, he said at this point nearly every fire department in McKenzie County has been out to help.

McKenzie County Emergency Manager Karolin Jappe said while the county would like to able to get aid from the state with a helicopter, as of Monday at 3:30 p.m. CST, they were not able to secure one as there are no houses, equipment or cattle in danger. Jappe said she will work with the U.S. Forest Service to make additional plans.

A helicopter would have to be approved by the county commission before the extra help could be requested. The state Emergency Management Services Department would then contact the National Guard before the helicopter arrives.

The local firefighters received some aid from the federal government with a plane being used on Sunday afternoon. However, additional planes are determined on a day-to-day basis, depending on the severity of other fires across the nation, Jappe said. Each morning they will find out whether or not there is one available to help them.

Firefighters from the U.S. Forest Service have been on scene as the fire is partially on federal grasslands, as well as private grazing land.

The cause of the fire is unknown at this time. The Forest Service said the first report of smoke in the area of Magpie Campground came Saturday afternoon.

Bob Carlson and his crew at the Department of Natural Resources traveled from Minnesota to help with the wildfire on Monday morning.

“This is a tragedy here for a lot of people,” Carlson said. “It’s burned a lot of acreage. They’re doing a good job for with what they’ve got.”

Carlson said they normally do not travel to western North Dakota but they go where they are called. He said there a lot of different variables that firefighters have to think about when fighting a blaze like this.

“You always have one foot in the black and one foot in the green,” Carlson said. “(You have to) watch your back and make sure you have an egress. … No two fires are the same, they might be similar but not the same.”

Dry conditions

Another factor has been the weather. While National Weather Service predicted a 50 percent chance of rain late Monday and early Tuesday, wind gusts could be as high as 32 mph. The forecast for the remainder of the week calls for a slight chance of rain and highs of 88 on Tuesday, 86 on Wednesday, 92 on Thursday and 97 on Friday.

“The drier and drier it gets, the danger definitely increases,” Chernenko said. “When it gets like this, it’s literally a cigarette butt in the ditch or just something a little can start them up like this.”

Chernenko said the winds have been switching directions, causing a swirling effect, which can also make it more dangerous to fight the fire.

“You definitely have to watch and make sure you can get your escape route,” he said. “It definitely puts more stress on the fire chief. Communication is key at that point.”

The Forest Service announced a temporary flight restriction Monday for all fixed-wing and rotor aircraft that are not in direct support of the fire suppression efforts for the airspace over the fire. The Maah Daah Hey Trail System will be closed from Bennett Campground in the McKenzie Ranger District to the Elkhorn Campground in the Medora Ranger District, including access to the Maah Daah Hey Trail from the Bennett Trail.

The Whitetail day use campground and Magpie Campground are also closed to public use. The Forest Service asked members of the public to stay clear of the closed areas until further notice, and warned against using drones over or near wildfires.

The fire comes amid widespread drought conditions that prompted Gov. Doug Burgum to issue a statewide fire and drought emergency in late June. Almost half of North Dakota was in severe or extreme drought last week, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, and most counties in the western half of the state have issued some kind of burning restriction.

Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, said she heard from a couple of members that the fire was consuming some grazing lands. North Dakota’s congressional delegation, meanwhile, announced Monday that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had opened up Conservation Reserve program acres for haying within 150 miles of severe drought areas.

“The conditions statewide just really puts our state at a high fire risk,” Ellingson said.

Check back for updates to this developing story.

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