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Published October 19, 2012, 08:47 AM

Shields, North Dakota still alive after wildfire 10 years ago

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Hearing about the quick-moving blaze that burned half of the buildings in Bucyrus on Wednesday brought back memories for Grant County Emergency Manager Joann Ozbun of another fire that ran through Shields a decade ago.

By: JENNY MICHAEL,The Bismarck Tribune , Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Hearing about the quick-moving blaze that burned half of the buildings in Bucyrus on Wednesday brought back memories for Grant County Emergency Manager Joann Ozbun of another fire that ran through Shields a decade ago.

The days at the end of June and beginning of July 2002 were hot. The temperature reached 113 on one of the peak days of the fire that burned thousands of acres of pasture and grass, along with many of the buildings in Shields.

"It was windy but not to this extent," Ozbun said, comparing the conditions during the 2002 fire to the Adams County one that took out much of Bucyrus. "It was extremely, extremely hot weather."

The town of Shields was formed when Nathaniel John Shields started a rural post office out of his home on Sept. 16, 1896, according to the book "North Dakota Place Names." After Milwaukee Road Railroad came through in 1910, Shields had a bank and a newspaper. By 1920, the population was 250, but the number of people in town declined to 99 in 1950.

When the fire ripped through town during the summer of 2002, many people predicted it was the knockout punch for the town, where 15 people still lived. But Ozbun said the community has survived the decade since the fire.

Shields still has its own ZIP code, but it no longer has a post office. Ozbun said that closed a few years ago. Shields isn't listed in 2010 Census data, though to be fair, it hadn't been listed for several decades before the 2002 fire. A bar, which was spared in the fire, still is in operation.

"There never was a business place except a bar in Shields, for probably 40 years," Ozbun said. "(The fire) burned a museum and a few things that were right in the town of Shields."

Even before the fire, many of the buildings in Shields were vacant. Several occupied structures were lost.

"It mostly affected farmers and ranchers that lost their fences and a few barns and hay crops," Ozbun said.

The fire spread into Sioux County, which houses the North Dakota side of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. After the fire went through Shields, it seemed headed for the Sioux County town of Porcupine. Cellphones weren't as common then, and even if people had them, the service was poor in that area. Ozbun helped go door to door to tell people to evacuate the town.

The Red Cross used a brand-new refrigerated truck to tend to the firefighters and other emergency personnel fighting the fire. Ozbun said fire departments from North Dakota and South Dakota fought the blaze, which flared up even after they thought it was out. Local, state, federal and tribal law enforcement also were involved, along with the U.S. Forest Service.

More than just buildings and grassland were damaged in the fire. It went on for so long, and the weather was so hot, that the local fire department had engines and transmissions go out on fire trucks. The county didn't get any assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency because the damages didn't meet thresholds for aid, Ozbun said.

Like other southwestern North Dakota counties, Grant County has been dry this year. There's been a burn ban in effect since April, but fires still spring up, stemming from equipment working in the fields or lightning from the storms that never seem to bring enough precipitation.

"I think the most acreage burnt in any one was 6,800 acres," Ozbun said.

People have been conscious of the drought, and campers at Lake Tschida have called regularly to see whether they can have campfires. Ozbun said she's a little "shaky" now that hunting season has arrived. However, she does not believe there has been a wildfire started by human conduct in the county this year.

And so far this year, the county hasn't been hit by anything like the Bucyrus fire. Whether that town will survive the fire remains to be seen, but the little town to the east of it has defied predictions of its death. Ozbun doesn't think anyone moved away from Shields permanently after the fire.

"We just had to pick up the pieces and keep going, which small communities are really good at doing," she said.

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