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Grass fire smoke shuts down North Dakota highway

Part of I-94 closed for several hours Thursday

Grass fire smoke in western North Dakota on April 1, 2021. (Photo: North Dakota Highway Patrol)

Updated April 2, 1:45 p.m. ET.

The threat of wildfires continues in the Plains after smoke forced an interstate shutdown in North Dakota.

Smoke from a fast-spreading North Dakota grass fire led to the shutdown of Interstate 94 Thursday in the far western part of the state. The fire was located near the town of Medora in Billings County, where wind gusts reached 30 mph.

A 43-mile stretch of the highway in both directions was closed for about four hours from late afternoon into the evening between the towns of Beach and Belfield. The smoke was thick enough to reduce visibility.

The smoke was detected by GOES East satellite, and National Weather Service (NWS) meteorologists tweeted that their infrared channel sensed the hot temperatures from the fire.

According to a Grand Forks Herald report, as of 8 p.m. Mountain time Thursday, fire officials said that 15% of the fire had been contained. They estimated that 9,600 acres burned. At least 100 people were evacuated from the Medora area, according to the Bismarck Tribune.

As of Thursday, the North Dakota Forest Service had received reports of more than 140 wildfires that had burned more than 30,000 acres, according to Valley News Live. By comparison, the 518 wildfires reported to the Forest Service in 2020 burned 9,205 acres.

Related: High risk of wildfires in High Plains

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum declared a statewide fire emergency Thursday, enabling the North Dakota National Guard to assist in containing the fire.

“North Dakota must be prepared to respond to wildland fires during periods of ongoing dry conditions and drought patterns,” Burgum said in a notice to the state’s National Guard. “At this time, North Dakota has an elevated spring and summer fire potential. A significant number of fires have occurred to date. To prepare to support local and tribal firefighting efforts, assist federal fire partners and respond to fire emergencies across the state, we must have firefighting resources available on short notice. The North Dakota National Guard has the resources we may need to support those firefighting efforts.”

Based on the latest U.S. Drought Monitor, much of western North Dakota has been under a severe drought since mid-December, worsening to an extreme drought around mid-March.

These drought conditions, along with a deficit of snow cover and moisture over the winter, helped intensify the dry conditions across many parts of the Plains. The NWS has issued red flag warnings for portions of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Iowa and Minnesota. This means persistent low humidity and gusty winds, along with unseasonably warm weather this weekend, could quickly spread existing fires out of control, as well as new ones that start.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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Nick Austin

Nick is a meteorologist with 20 years of forecasting and broadcasting experience. He was nominated for a Midsouth Emmy for his coverage during a 2008 western Tennessee tornado outbreak. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University, as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Georgia Tech. Nick is a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in February 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” eight consecutive years.