(Reprinted from Dakota Country magazine, June 2021)
Most years, the North Dakota Badlands, as I write this in early May, are changing color. As the ground warms, the winter’s snowmelt brings hints of green into the brown landscape of buffalo and crested wheat grass and little bluestem, and by the end of the month, as you’re reading this, the transition from brown to green will be well under way.
But not this year.
Oh, the Badlands are changing color, all right, but the change is from brown to black. Since Easter weekend, beginning with the April Fool’s Day Fire near Medora, reports of prairie wildfires have come pretty much daily. By May 1, the North Dakota Forest Service had reported more than 140 wildfires statewide, and the Badlands fire, named the Roosevelt Creek Fire, which burned north of Medora over the first weekend of May, brought the total number of acres burned to more than 50,000, at least four times as many burned by wildfires in all of 2020.
My wife Lillian, who grew up on a Badlands ranch, says this past winter was the driest out there in state history. It only takes a drive west of Dickinson to confirm that. I did that on that early May weekend, as word of the Roosevelt Creek fire spread as rapidly as the fire itself, to try to get a sense of what’s happening in western North Dakota this spring.
It’s an awful, depressing, picture.
On an overnight Badlands trip, I took with me Timothy Egan’s book “The Big Burn — Teddy Roosevelt & The Fire That Saved America.” It’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s account of The Great Fire of 1910, the second largest fire in American history, which consumed more than 3 million acres, and the story of TR’s creation of the U.S. Forest Service, setting aside more than 200 million acres of land for public use.
A few thousand of those acres burned on that May weekend in North Dakota this spring. But nothing like what Egan wrote about:
“On the afternoon of August 20, 1910, a battering ram of wind moved through the drought-stricken national forests of Washington, Idaho and Montana, whipping the hundreds of small blazes burning across the forest floor into a roaring inferno that jumped from treetop to ridge as it raged, destroying towns and timber in the blink of an eye. Forest rangers had assembled nearly 10,000 men — college boys, day workers, immigrants from mining camps — to fight the fire. But no living person had seen anything like those flames, and neither the rangers nor anyone else knew how to subdue them.
“Here now came the fire down from the Bitterroot Mountains and showered embers and forest shrapnel onto the town that was supposed to be protected by all those men with faraway accents and empty stomachs. For days, people had watched it from their gabled houses, from front porches and ash-covered streets, and there was some safety in the distance, some fascination even — see there, way up on the ridgeline, just candles flickering in the trees. But now it was on them, an element transformed from Out There to Here, snuffing out the life of a drunk on a hotel mattress, torching a veranda … By 10 p.m., the streets of Wallace, Idaho — where President Roosevelt had walked seven years earlier — were overwhelmed by flames, and the forest he had set aside for future generations was in ruin. Hundreds of firefighters were lost and thought to be dead …”
Note the date: Aug.20. August. Fire season.
The Roosevelt Creek Fire I witnessed here this year started in April.
And that late April fire wasn’t the first of the season. Already, the Medora Fire, which led to the temporary evacuation of the town and threatened the famous Burning Hills Amphitheatre (yes, it gave new meaning to that name) had consumed more than 2,000 acres, and just days later, the Horse Pasture Fire 75 miles north had kept firefighters busy throughout the Easter weekend, eventually burning more than 5,000 acres, much of it inside Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit.
The North Dakota Forest Service’s Fire Manager, Ryan Melin, serving as the Incident Commander on the Roosevelt Creek Fire, told me that he and his crew had actually responded to the first fire of the year back in January, a fire that started Jan. 15, stretching 20 miles along the state border between Hettinger, N.D., and Lemmon, S.D, and burned more than 15,000 acres, destroying several ranches. Melin and his crew had been there assisting local fire departments, as a number of state “school sections” lay in the fire’s path.
I encountered Melin in his mobile office (pickup) set up at an oil drilling pad about 10 miles north of Medora late in the day Thursday, April 29, monitoring two-way radios and cell phones on a pretty calm spring afternoon, when the Roosevelt Creek Fire appeared to have been somewhat confined to hotspots in deep canyons between the Belle Lake Road and the Little Missouri River.
He was a tired-looking man, who said he and his team were operating on just a couple of hours sleep, on the ground, “over there,” he said, pointing to a patch of grass behind a drilling rig. They were having a lucky day. The wind had died and they felt they had the fire “in a box,” an oblong area of about a thousand acres with about a 9-mile perimeter, bounded by gravel roads which had served as firestops. So far, no buildings or oil facilities had burned, and there had been no casualties.
But by Friday morning, the winds returned, and the fire took off in multiple directions, growing to more than 4,000 acres, including some pastureland on the Short Ranch near the Little Missouri River, the proposed site of the controversial proposed bridge over the river.
And fire crews were getting spread thin. On Friday of that same weekend, a large grassfire north of Dickinson forced the evacuation of the tiny town of Manning before it was brought under control by local firefighters. Farther north, the town of Carpio was evacuated the same day. On Saturday, one of the burning coal veins ignited the prairie grass in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and by Sunday, May 2, at least 8,000 acres were burning on the Fort Berthold Reservation near Mandaree.
Incident Commander Melin told me that every government agency with available personnel was working on the fires, including the North Dakota and U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, North Dakota Game and Fish, the North Dakota National Guard and every local fire department — six of them at work with him on the Roosevelt Creek Fire. On Sunday, Melin reported that the Guard’s Black Hawk Helicopters had dropped 113 buckets of water, a total of 62,150 gallons of water, on the fire, and by days’ end, they had it 70 percent contained. But the winds blew again Monday, and as I write this, there are still a lot of acres burning.
“It’s going to be a long summer,” Melin said wistfully.
Local ranchers were keeping a wary eye on the Roosevelt Creek Fire as their pastures burned, along with state and federal land. A couple I talked to said it’s as dry as they’ve seen it right now, although they were hoping for traditional May rainfall.
“How dry is it?” I asked.
“So dry you couldn’t grow a weed in the shade of a fencepost,” one replied.
“Drier than a popcorn fart,” said another.
I’m not sure how dry a popcorn fart is, or even what a popcorn fart is, actually, but these are dangerous and scary times in the Badlands. I hope by the time you’re reading this, the rains have come.
In kind of an interesting twist of fate and timing, the Theodore Roosevelt Association, the congressionally chartered organization dedicated to perpetuating the memory and ideals of Theodore Roosevelt, will hold its annual meeting in North Dakota this fall, Sept. 23-26, hosted by our own Theodore Roosevelt Center in Dickinson, and the keynote speaker will be none other than author Timothy Egan, who knows something about both wildfires and Theodore Roosevelt. I’m guessing Egan is as eager to come to TR’s old stomping grounds as we are to have him here. You can read more about that event at www.theodoreroosevelt.org.