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High winds damage buildings, spur on large grass fire

Winds in excess of 90 mph were not uncommon in the Dakotas and Montana Jan. 13-14. Buildings were damaged, a blown-over semi blocked Interstate 94 and a large grass fire moved through farms and ranches in southern North Dakota and northern South Dakota.

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The Steeke hoop barn was about a year old and was destroyed by high winds on Jan. 14, 2021. (Trevor Steeke photo)

Trevor Steeke went out at midnight on Thursday, Jan. 14, to check on the lambs and goats in his hoop barn near Rhame, N.D. There were seven brand new lambs, but everything was fine, even as 90 mph winds blew through southwestern North Dakota.

“Then I went out at 6, and we had no barn,” Steeke said.

The Steeke barn was just one casualty of the hurricane force winds that blew through the region in recent days. Gusts in excess of 90 mph were common across Montana and the Dakotas on Jan. 13 and 14, as were reports of barns and outbuildings being lifted and carried away. A semi overturned across Interstate 94 east of Bismarck on Thursday.

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The wind overturned a semi on Interstate 94 east of Bismarck on Jan. 14, 2021. (North Dakota Highway Patrol photo)

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Traffic was backed up on Interstate 94 east of Bismarck on Jan. 14, 2021, after the wind blew a semi over. (North Dakota Department of Transportation photo)

“This event will go down as one of the worst non-thunderstorm wind events in recent memory,” the National Weather Service in Bismarck, N.D., said.

The winds also blew fast-moving flames from southern North Dakota into northern South Dakota. According to the Lemmon, S.D., Fire Department, a major grass fire, dubbed “Windy Fire,” was reported the afternoon of Jan. 14 in Adams County, N.D., leading to the evacuation of farms and ranches in the area. The fire had traveled about 20 miles, at some times four miles wide, by Friday morning. The southern progression of the fire stopped at the Grand River at 11:04 p.m., but the west side of the fire continued into Friday morning, with strong winds still blowing through the area.

Fire crews and law enforcement from across northwestern South Dakota and southwestern North Dakota responded to the fire, which, as of Friday morning, had burned an estimated 10,000 acres and went through 19 occupied farms and ranches. While no occupied residential structures had been lost to the fire, the Lemmon Fire Department reported a ranch headquarters had experienced extensive damage. Two firefighters were injured in the fire and received medical attention at West River Regional Medical Center in Hettinger, N.D.

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Dry conditions are common across the U.S., including the Upper Midwest where strong winds blew a grass fire through southern North Dakota and northern South Dakota on Jan. 14-15, 2021. (U.S. Drought Monitor)

Dry conditions in the area played a role in the fire, the Lemmon Fire Department reported. The area has no snow on the ground, and the U.S. Drought Monitor lists the area as “abnormally dry.” The entirety of the Dakotas is considered to be at least abnormally dry, with the majority of the area considered to be in moderate, severe or extreme drought. The dry conditions extend into eastern Montana and western Minnesota, while Wyoming and Nebraska have even more extreme drought conditions.

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Sometime between midnight and 6 a.m. on Jan. 14, 2021, wind picked up and moved the Steeke hoop barn near Rhame, N.D. (Trevor Steeke photo)

Steeke’s wife, Misty, is an agriculture teacher and knows FFA members in the area of the fire. Hearing about that situation made the loss of his 1-year-old hoop barn a little easier. None of the 150 sheep or 50 goats were injured when the barn blew apart. Plans already are in place for replacing the barn, and neighbors showed up to provide the family with meals and to take the livestock to shelter.

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Steeke said their older children, one an ag teacher and one a college student in Kansas, offered to come home to help, but with the assistance of friends and neighbors, the Steekes were able to tell them to stay where they were.

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No livestock were hurt when the Steeke barn blew away in the wind near Rhame, N.D., on Jan. 14, 2021. Neighbors are helping care for the sheep and goats that were inside. (Trevor Steeke photo)

“We just keep moving forward,” he said. “The ag community always comes together.”

Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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