7,100 ACRES BURN
Weekend rains could bring relief to hundreds of weary firefighters battling a 7,100 acre blaze in three west central Minnesota counties.
The fire started Tuesday afternoon near Little Long Lake Road in Becker County and consumed at least 55 buildings, including 12 homes and 33 outbuildings, including two turkey barns. Forty-five fire departments responded to help Forest Service and DNR Forestry crews extinguish the blaze as a massive ground and air attack began.
The cause remains under investigation but by Friday press time, it was 65 percent contained.
“Wolf Lake (Fire Department) was the first there and then Carsonville and Park Rapids came,” said Menahga Fire Chief Dave Kicker.
Tinder dry conditions, despite a winter of above average snowfall, made it “a disaster waiting to happen,” fire experts on the scene said. Winds of 45 mph drove the inferno from Becker County into Hubbard and Wadena counties.
By early Wednesday, five battalions had been organized to surround the fire that was by then nine miles long and one to two miles wide in places. It was named the Green Valley Fire.
Dozens of households were evacuated along with Green Pine Acres residents, believed to be 100 people, overnight Tuesday.
“Evacuations took place under chaos,” said DNR public information officer Ron Sanow Thursday. ”I don’t have a real solid number” of people evacuated.
Evacuees were allowed to return to their homes in the contained area at noon Thursday after all threats, such as downed or frayed power lines.
“Containment” is a technical term that defines when a fire is surrounded by trenches and heavy equipment. Then 150 feet inside that perimeter, measures have been taken to prevent the fire’s spread beyond that point.
Firefighters spent Thursday and Friday moving from hot spot to hot spot, dousing or containing the fires in that bulldozed perimeter.
Friday morning a low-flying helicopter with an infra-red camera was mapping the disaster area, detecting remaining hot spots that were entered into a GPS unit for further attention.
“We absolutely do not want to lose any more personal property,” DNR public information volunteer Ron Sanow said at Thursday’s media briefing.
In some cases that means letting flames burn. Firefighters also used water and suppression foam throughout the week.
“We have a finite pool of resources we all compete for,” Sanow explained.
Long-term efforts will be partnerships with local churches and relief agencies, he said.
Sightseers were a huge problem Thursday and Hubbard County Emergency Management Director Brian Halbasch was asking the public to stay out of the burned area through the weekend. A steady stream of motorists toured Hubbard County 111, getting in the way of residents trying to clean up and emergency personnel still using the roadway.
“It’s been a traffic nightmare,” Halbasch said. Roads that can barely accommodate an emergency vehicle have been clogged with sightseers. Those roads are getting beaten up by traffic and pose an additional hazard, he said.
“We’re continuing to mop up 150 feet on the lines and putting out a lot of burning piles,” said DNR public information officer Jeff Edmonds Friday morning.
As bulldozers pushed up piles of burning ground and peat, more fire control was called in.
“We’re kind of in the wrap-up phase,” Edmonds said Friday.
The DNR Forestry office is working to schedule a meeting with homeowners and loggers for those that want to salvage their timber, Edmonds said.
“It’s a good idea to salvage it very soon,” Edmonds said, before the wood loses its value.
While residents walked around in shock through the week, there was universal praise for the work firefighters and emergency personnel accomplished throughout the disaster.
“For every one (structure or building) lost, three or four were saved,” Sanow said. “That’s pretty phenomenal for a crown fire.”
A crown fire is one that burns tree needles up the trunk of the tree, necessitating an air assault. Such fires move at one to two mph, Sanow said.
Sanow praised the new state ARMER radio system as being pivotal to the operation. All state radios went to the system Jan. 1.
Crews within a 100-mile radius that responded were able to communicate with each other to coordinate the overall plan, he said. “Usually the first thing that happens is that communications break down.”
That did not occur during the Green Valley fire.
There were no injuries and few animal fatalities.
Edmonds did address the rumors that are as widespread as the fire. Tales that it was started by a welder, an arsonist and other man-made causes are just not true.
“We’ve been investigating this from day one,” he said. “It is none of the above.”
“It was a pretty darned heroic outcome,” Sanow said.