North Dakota Fire Burns Part Of Rare Pine Forest

AMIDON, N.D. (AP) -- A grassfire that burned an estimated 3,820 acres in southwestern North Dakota was 95 percent contained Friday night, though officials were still assessing damage to North Dakota's only ponderosa pine forest.

The 22-square-mile stretch is known as the easternmost forest of ponderosas in the country. A blaze that began Wednesday spread into the pines west of Amidon.

Some estimated about one-fourth of the forest burned, but Pat McKelvey, a spokesman for Northern Rockies Incident Management Team, a group of agencies working to control the fire, said a hard estimate was difficult to make.

``There's a lot of green trees there. It's not total devastation,'' he said.

About a quarter-inch of rain and high humidity helped the firefighters overnight Thursday, McKelvey said. On Friday night, firefighters were checking the fire perimeter for hot spots, using infrared equipment that detects heat.

``We'll continue that through part of tomorrow,'' McKelvey said.

Some of the firefighters were scheduled to depart on Saturday, he said.

The fire is believed to have started with a spark from a tractor. It was not intentional, McKelvey said.

``We've been very lucky -- no injuries on the fire and no structures lost,'' he said.

Darla Lenz, a Forest Service botanist, said many of the ponderosa pine trees could survive, depending on how hot the fire was and whether their roots and crown were damaged.

``Fire is part of the ecosystem and the trees will come back,'' she said.

Dickinson State University geography professor Gary Cummisk said years of fire suppression led to a buildup of debris on the forest floor, fueling the fire.

Private property owners in the forest have been conducting controlled burns in recent years to lessen the fire danger, after a freak 1997 wind-shear episode in the area downed large numbers of trees, Cummisk said.

The U.S. Forest Service has been planning a controlled burn for the last couple of years but delayed it because of drought, Lenz said.

Birds using the pine habitat include the common poorwill, the Audubon's warbler and the western pine elfin butterfly. Part of the forest is privately owned, part is federally owned.

Theodore Roosevelt, who visited the area during the 1880s, wanted it to become part of the national forest system, and that status was granted under his presidency in 1908, Cummisk said. But in 1917, the Dakota Forest, as it was called, was determined to be too small for the government to maintain, and it returned to private control. In the 1930s, part of it returned to public stewardship as National Grasslands.

Cummisk, a former Washington State resident who moved to the area about a year ago, said it is one of the most scenic areas in North Dakota.