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Tree piles dot the countryside in Hubbard, Becker and Wadena counties. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

The countryside was burning up a year ago

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By Sarah Smith

“She was a hot one!” recalled Russ Knowles as he watched a raging wildfire blow past his home just south of Wadena County, taking his garage with it.

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Across the road his son, Derek, had just lost 1,000 Norway pines close to his home.

It was one year ago today.

A new steel garage stands on the Russ Knowles property south of Park Rapids. A child’s fire truck sits in Derek Knowles’ front yard, silent testimony to what the area experienced.

New building is popping up all over the three counties hit by what’s been labeled the Green Valley Fire.

One year ago today the fire gobbled up 7,100 acres, caused millions in damages, destroyed 55 structures including 12 homes and wreaked havoc on Hubbard, Becker and Wadena counties.

It took days to bring it under control, a firefighting effort that involved hundreds of area and state firefighters and platoons of trucks, aerial equipment, bulldozers, earth movers and millions of gallons of water. High winds and dry conditions leveled a one-two punch to the area.

The Green Valley Fire is the largest in recent memory and involved a massive response and cleanup effort, which is still in progress today.

While many homeowners have received insurance settlements, some still wait for money and the energy to rebuild, replant, replenish.

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Jim Carlson and his wife now live in a rented home in Menahga.

Before the fire claimed their home on Blueberry Pines’ No, 8 fairway, they grabbed a few photos and car titles, thinking when the flames passed by a half mile away, they’d return home.

The golf pro and his wife never made it back. Their home and all of their possessions went up in flames that night.

“Pretty much everything” went, Jim said this week.

The shock of the fire was offset by the outpouring of community support, with club members, friends and strangers coming to their aid.

“It was fantastic,” Carlson recalls. “It made it a much, much easier process.”

Four holes on the 18-hole course were scorched extensively and Carlson is waiting anxiously through this season to see if many will survive.

Bark beetles prey on stressed trees so Carlson is hoping for a fairly wet summer to bring the course’s trees back to health.

An empty lot with lumber and sliced trees piled high is where the home used to be.

“A half hour after we left it was toast,” Carlson said of his home.

Heirlooms, photos, furniture, the memorabilia poster board Jim’s sister made of all his accomplishments in Milnor, N.D., were all gone.

“I can always remember it, I just can’t look back on it,” Carlson said of his memories.

Some of those four holes on the golf course play a bit differently. There’s lots more open space.

New trees and seedlings are budding out on the north and west sides of the course, new life amid the disaster. Deep fairway ruts from heavy equipment that was deployed to douse flames have been repaired.

“We’re moving on, moving up, looking toward the future,” Carlson said. His house won’t be rebuilt.

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“Undetermined” is how Park Rapids DNR Forestry chief Mark Carlstrom describes the cause of the inferno.

“It’s undetermined until something new comes out or somebody admits it,” Carlstrom said.

And even though this spring the region has been blessed with more rainfall, Carlstrom said the fire danger is hitting its crescendo.

“It’s the most flammable time of the year,” he said Monday. “Yesterday we had a grass fire” during intermittent rains, he said.

“Pine foliage has the lowest moisture content when the needles are elongating,” he said, underscoring the need to be cautious this time of year.

Huge tree piles adorn most fields and many yards. It is obvious it was a busy winter for many property owners affected.

A burn ban prevents Russ and Derek Knowles from burning the tree piles in their yard, neatly plucked from their roots and stacked in rows.

They, along with many locals, claim to know who was responsible for the blaze, but won’t reveal it.

Carlstrom said it cost $1 million in fire suppression. The buildings lost amounted to $2 million.

“We all think our assessed valuation is too high, then we try to rebuild and it’s too low,” he said.

But the Green Valley Fire claimed no lives and caused no physical injuries.

“It was amazing.”

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Russ and Derek Knowles are working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services office in Park Rapids to purchase replacement trees. Planting won’t take place until 2015.

“It roared right through here,” Russ Knowles said, shaking his head at the memory.

“Across over there that whole plantation burned,” he said of a now deceased neighbor’s tree farm across the road near the Hubbard/Wadena County border.

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Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers Hubbard County, courts and breaking news.

(218) 732-3364
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