Wildfire forces evacuations, claims several homes in Karlstad
KARLSTAD, Minn. - Laura Anderson, 16, and Aaron Wikstrom, 17, were both in class when the evacuation call went out.
"I walked into math class and it smelled like smoke," Wikstrom said.
Just a couple of hours earlier, at lunchtime, they said there hadn't been any smoke, a sign of how quickly the wildfire moved toward this town of 760 about 50 miles northeast of Grand Forks.
The pair, along with the town's other elementary and high school students, were rushed onto one of five waiting buses that took them to several locations to escape the smoke.
"Eventually we just parked in someone's driveway outside of town," Anderson said.
Karlstad was a town under siege Tuesday afternoon as a wildfire that had been plaguing the area approached from the southwest and began to envelope the town. About 150 firefighters from all over the region were dispatched to help save the town. Gov. Mark Dayton dispatched the National Guard and two of their Black Hawk helicopters.
By evening, firefighters could report that extensive progress had been made. Though the fire continued to spread, it was no longer headed for Karlstad.
'A tough day'
It's called the County 27 fire by firefighters, and is one of eight weekend fires in northwest Minnesota.
On Tuesday morning, the state Department of Natural Resources had declared that 50 percent of the County 27 fire was contained. By then it had scorched 500 acres. By the afternoon, strong southerly winds that topped 40 mph had given the flames new life and set them on a path toward Karlstad.
"We knew it was going to be a tough day," said DNR spokesman Gil Knight. "Unfortunately we weren't wrong."
Shortly before 2 p.m., authorities evacuated the southern portions of Karlstad nearest the fire.
By 3:30 p.m., some buildings believed to be unoccupied were on fire, according to the Kittson County Sheriff's Department.
On the outskirts of town, Border Patrol agents directed traffic, eventually turning motorists away as visibility dropped to dangerous levels. For a few hours, all roads into Karlstad were closed. They reopened by 7 p.m., but authorities asked residents that had evacuated to stay away until noon today.
Nearby communities had opened their doors to evacuees in need of a bed and food, including Grace Lutheran Church in Hallock, Minn.
Those looking to contact family may call the church at (218) 843-3665.
As of Tuesday evening, no injuries have been reported, Knight said. A tally of damaged structures and acres won't be available until later today, he said.
A family affair
Laura Anderson and Aaron Wikstrom eventually ended up at the Karlstad Fire Department, plucked from the school buses by their mothers, Jackie Anderson and Lori Wikstrom, respectively.
The fire hall served as command central for more than a dozen fire departments from surrounding communities on Tuesday, and as volunteer central.
Saving the town was a family affair for the Andersons and the Wikstroms.
Jackie Anderson's husband is a retired firefighter. Lori Wikstrom's husband, Corey, is Karlstad's assistant fire chief and her other son, Jordan, is a firefighter.
Anderson said she heard of the fire when she got a frantic call from her daughter. Racing home from work in Thief River Falls, she called her husband. "I told him 'We're going to lose Karlstad. Get home.' "
She and Lori Wikstrom joined half a dozen volunteers in the fire hall kitchen wrapping food for firefighters still out in the field and serving food to those taking a break.
As Jordan Wikstrom went back out in the field, his mother gave his arm a quick squeeze.
"Be safe," she said, looking into her son's soot-stained face and holding back tears.
Herald Staff Writer Kevin Bonham contributed to this report.
Brandi Jewett writes for the Grand Forks Herald.