North Dakota Firefighters Make Progress On Grass Fire

AMIDON, N.D. (AP) -- Firefighters reported progress Thursday against a grasslands blaze that burned about 4,000 acres, sending flames 80 feet into the air and forcing ranchers out of their homes.

Cooler temperatures and a chance of showers gave a boost to crews battling the Deep Creek fire in southwestern North Dakota.

``We're not calling it contained yet, but they are pretty comfortable with the southern two-thirds of the fire,'' Forest Service spokeswoman Colleen Reinke said late Thursday night.

``It's not real active right now, but there's still a lot of heat, and where there's heat and you get wind you have the potential for a problem,'' she said.

John Hanson, who runs the Logging Camp ranch north of Amidon, said Thursday night that he and his family were making plans to return after evacuating the night before. The fire had been stopped across the road, he said, and about a dozen buildings were saved.

``It's a frightful experience,'' Hanson said.

``The Forest Service, the local fire departments, and all the friends and neighbors did a wonderful job of making good decisions and maintaining an intensity, and no one got hurt,'' he said.

The blaze started early Wednesday afternoon, about 10 miles west of Amidon, in Slope County. Authorities said it might have been caused by a spark from a tractor.

Nearly 100 local volunteer firefighters and another 60 federal and state firefighters battled the blaze.

``I think we got her pretty well circled up,'' said Amidon Fire Chief Dick Frederick.

The fire was inside the boundaries of the Little Missouri National Grasslands, but mostly on private land. No structures were damaged, though fences burned. No injuries to people or livestock were reported. Officials used the Slope County Fairgrounds were as a command center.

Hanson said persistent dry conditions set the stage for the blaze.

``Every year for the past three or four years, we've had about 40 days in the summer and early fall in extremely high fire conditions,'' he said.

Still, he said, ``I never dreamed a fire would come that far. They were unbelievably tough conditions.''

Rain was welcomed, but crews were hoping that lightning would not strike.

Thunderstorms are ``kind of a wild card,'' Reinke said. ``They can make the wind extremely unpredictable. If we get a lot of lightning, the ignition potential is there.''

Gov. John Hoeven declared a statewide fire emergency, and state officials said the fire danger could last through the Labor Day weekend.

A burned up tractor was found at the site where the fire began near Amidon, and officials were trying to find its owner, Reinke said.

``They're certainly investigating it as the cause (of the fire),'' she said.

At 4:30 a.m. Thursday, Reinke said, the flames were more than 80 feet high. Some rare ponderosa pine trees burned, she said, but in some areas, ``a lot of it had burned the litter underneath the trees, and that's a good thing.''

Dakota Prairie Grasslands fire department manager Maure Sand estimated the fire torched about one-fourth of the native pines.

The blaze threatened the Loren Jacobson ranch, coming within 300 feet of ranch buildings. Jacobson said he lost enough grass to force him to cut back cattle numbers by half until it grows green again.

``It was going to happen sooner or later. We could have had deaths and we could have had wrecks,'' he said. ``The grass will come back, the sun will shine and it'll rain again someday. It always does.''

Authorities said the volatile conditions could extend into the fall, especially in the 11-county, southwestern quarter of the state.

State Emergency Manager Doug Friez said North Dakotans should enjoy the last holiday weekend of the summer but remember the fire danger. Staff from the state fire marshal's office and the state Highway Patrol would be ready to help local officials, he said.

Hanson said he would encourage everyone to have an evacuation plan.

In his case, he said, ``It was surprising some of the things that got taken and some of the things that got left.''