BISMARCK — North Dakota is weathering wildfires burning acreage at an alarming rate, and because fires have ignited throughout the state since January and drought conditions continue to worsen, North Dakota's "fire season" could very well be prolonged into a "fire year."
As of early afternoon on Monday, May 3, at least 797 known fires burned 76,474 acres throughout the state since the beginning of the year, said North Dakota State Forester Tom Claeys.
This is "unprecedented" and almost six times as many acres as North Dakota averages in a typical year, as about 13,000 acres are burned from wildfires annually, he said.
In an average year, North Dakota's fire season occurs from late March to mid-April and then again in the fall from late September to mid-October. But because of an intense drought throughout much of the state, fires sparked in January and could continue to ignite all year, he said.
"Depending on how the rest of the season goes and how our drought goes, we could be looking at the potential for a (fire) season that extends through summer, into the fall and into next winter," Claeys said.
Two large fires recently occurred in western North Dakota — one named the "Spring Creek" fire, about 10 miles south of Killdeer, near Manning. The other, deemed the "Little Swallow" fire, is south of Mandaree on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
The Spring Creek fire was 100% contained and burned 800 acres as of Monday afternoon, according to AirNow.gov, which collects fire data from local and federal agencies. The Little Swallow fire was 50% contained and burned more than 8,500 acres as of Sunday.
Last week, the small town of Carpio, about 30 miles northwest of Minot, was evacuated due to the threat of a nearby wildfire. Local agencies were able to extinguish it within a few hours, and no structural damage or injuries occurred.
Claeys said three North Dakota towns were evacuated because of the proximity of a wildfire in April alone: Medora, Mandaree and Carpio. In the last 15 years, he said, he can remember a total of about six towns being evacuated due to wildfires, making the three evacuations that occurred last month "almost unprecedented."
An "extreme" drought is impacting more than 80% of the state, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, with over 85% of North Dakotans living in an area that is experiencing drought.
North Dakota's intense drought means conditions for starting wildfires are exacerbated, Claeys said. More than 90% of wildfires are human-caused, so officials are asking residents to use caution and abide by their local burn bans.
Readers can reach reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.