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Fargo man recovering after setting himself and his car on fire in Hillsboro

Hillsboro Police Chief Ray Weber says Ryan Harstad won't face any charges. "He's got enough problems to deal with," he said. Dave Wallis / The Forum

HILLSBORO, N.D. - In the darkness they could see him coming down the street, the reportedly suicidal man who had just left the Stop-N-Go station here in a gasoline-soaked SUV.

Hillsboro Police Chief Ray Weber and two sheriff's deputies were settling into their squad cars when the Chevy Blazer stopped right in front of the Traill County Courthouse.

One of the deputies tried to talk to the man. He stuck his head out of the Blazer for a second, then shut the door and appeared to light a cigarette and drop the lit lighter to the floor, Weber said.

The man and the Blazer burst into flames.

"It all went up at once," Weber said.

With about 95 percent of his body ablaze, the man climbed out the driver-side window and fell to the ground. Weber radioed for help from fire and ambulance, then ran to the man and threw his coat around him, smothering the flames.

Two Traill County deputies threw snow on the man's legs to help extinguish his smoldering pants.

Ryan Harstad, 34, of Fargo, was taken to hospitals in Hillsboro and Fargo before being airlifted to the burn center at Regions Hospital in St. Paul, where he continues to recover from the Feb. 5 incident, according to his journal.

Harstad suffered burns on 37 to 40 percent of his body, according to a journal post by his mother.

He has undergone multiple skin grafts and surgeries, including one Tuesday to remove the last of the damaged tissue from his face. Doctors will start weaning him off the ventilator on Friday, and more skin grafts are planned, the journal states.

"My son is going to have to walk a hard journey," his mother wrote Feb. 9.

The incident began shortly before 2 a.m. Feb. 5, when Fargo police were called to the Stamart Travel Center at 3500 12th Ave. N.

Lt. Joel Vettel said a store clerk took action when she saw Harstad fueling up the Blazer, pumping gas into both the tank and the interior.

By the time she reached the vehicle, Harstad was behind the wheel. Before driving off, he threatened to light himself and the Blazer on fire, Vettel said.

Harstad drove off with the fuel hose still attached to the vehicle, Vettel said.

When the clerk told police what had happened, dispatchers alerted area authorities to be on the lookout for the vehicle. Hillsboro police were called about 30 minutes later.

Weber said he's never had a similar experience during his more than 30 years in law enforcement.

Harstad doesn't face any charges, he said.

"He's got enough problems to deal with," he said. "As long as he gets some help and gets taken care of."

The first post on Harstad's CaringBridge journal included a message to Hillsboro police, F-M Ambulance and the LifeFlight crew: "thank you all for all you did for Ryan."