Sifting through the ashes
BY Sarah smith
Ira Hefta’s sense of foreboding worsened the closer he got to home May 14.
The call from partner Susanne Johnson that afternoon said she’d seen flames coming from the garage.
“I knew I was in trouble when I could see a big billow of smoke,” coming from the direction of his home, Hefta recalled.
The flames were being fanned by 50-mph wind gusts at the home north of Boot Lake Road in near the Becker-Hubbard County line.
When Hefta arrived home, a vehicle sitting outside the garage was already in flames. That spread the fire to the home he and Johnson have lived in the past two decades, their dream home.
They had been looking for homes nearly eight years and had spotted this one, tucked into a grove of historic oak trees, the homesteaded log cabin still there.
“We’d oooh and aaah when we used to drive by this place,” Hefta recalled.
One Wednesday they saw the “For Sale” sign. By that Saturday, the home was theirs.
On the afternoon of May 14, chaos erupted in Becker, Hubbard and Wadena counties.
Emergency radios crackled with calls for help at 3:30 p.m.
Firefighters that responded to the blizzard of calls quickly found themselves surrounded by flames, fighting their way back out of hot spots.
“That’s pretty common in these situations,” Park Rapids Fire Chief Donn Hoffman said. “It’s pretty hard to not have to work your way through something but that was one of the things that there was concern with, making sure that didn’t happen. I don’t think we had any real close calls on my crews.”
“We were on Warmbold’s fire on (County Road) 14 there when this call came in, so our trucks went out with less than full loads on them,” Hoffman recalled. A fire at the home of Howard Warmbold had been quickly contained.
“So we went up to this fire, we got our equipment up to that fire, all of our manpower, one guy got another call to Two Inlets and we lost that structure, too,” the chief said.
“There was just nobody available,” Hoffman said.
“All that mess of smoke,” Hefta recalled, hearing repeated requests for firefighters. “They’re all down south of our little heaven. I knew they didn’t have enough people.”
The Hefta home was situated in a bowl, surrounded by tall trees. Ira and Susanne have never needed an air conditioner. Air circulates through the century-old trees and their open windows summer nights kept them cool.
But the protected setting also trapped heat on the site, heat enough to melt an industrial ladder into twigs. That Tuesday, firefighters risked their lives just being
Susanne had rounded up the English springer and put him into a vehicle, then raced to return to the house for the couple’s small dog.
Moonstone, given his moniker by the two rock hounds who had exhausted other gem names with previous pets, apparently followed her into the home while she rescued the small dog.
The “moondog” never came back out, Hefta recalled tearfully.
Firefighters were then besieged by calls not only in Two Inlets, but from the Menahga area.
“By the time the fire department got here, it was gone,” Hefta said of his house, hearing the frantic calls over the radio for help in Menahga. The fire continued to his storage shed, then the 1880 log cabin, sitting in the shade of a 250-year-old oak. That tree had to be cut down to contain the flames.
Hefta said he was amazed as he watched the firefighters fight to control the inferno that was by now hopping the road and heading southeast.
“That was the scary part,” he said. “It would have been like Menahga.”
The concrete foundation of his house was blistering and popping up in chunks.
“They were standing on the hill (above the house) and almost got blown away,” Hefta said of the firefighters on the scene battling not only flames but gale force winds.
The house was engulfed. Firefighters had to back off when flames crept in the direction of a propane tank.
“It wasn’t worth dying over,” Hefta told fire crews.
The house was a goner. Hefta asked the firefighters to move on, to go south to Menahga where they were really needed. The crew moved on, working through the night to contain what was then called the GreenValley Fire.
Fitrefighters had contained the Hefta fire across the road in a brush pit, which Hefta considered a miracle.
The site was so hot, Ira and Susanne couldn’t even visit it for days. Weekend rains sent angry hisses of steam into the air from hot spots still burning.
“It was still billowing steam six days later,” Hefta said. “It was still that hot.”
When they returned, all that was left was heartbreak. A house furnished with antiques, Hefta’s tools, the moondog, all gone. He wipes away a tear.
The only modern furnishing in the home was Hefta’s recliner.
“At least the rain washed away the stink,” Hefta said.
As he combs through the charred debris, inch by inch, he starts an inventory of what was lost.
“It’s hard to remember all the stuff one accumulates over the years, the memories,” Hefta said.
The couple was insured.
They will eventually rebuild on the site, Hefta said, but it will all take time.
Meanwhile they’re staying at a friend’s home. A historic barn was saved.
“There’s not many of ‘em left around,” Hefta said. But then his attention turns elsewhere.
“I think about all those people down south that didn’t have insurance,” Hefta said of the Green Valley fire victims.
“It’s gotta be really tough.”