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NOAA Special Weather Statement: Critical fire conditions

Wildfire doused in Park Rapids city limits; red flag warning continues

Water was scooped out of Long Lake by a Fire Boss aircraft which then doused the flames that burned nearly 10 acres during Tuesday afternoon’s fire in Park Rapids. (Nicole Vik / Enterprise)

At approximately 2:30 p.m. Tuesday, the Department of Natural Resources Forestry and Park Rapids Fire Department, along with mutual aid from Nevis Fire Department, responded to a seven-acre fire west of Walmart and south of the Kaywood Addition in Park Rapids.

The fire, which started in a half-acre spot, quickly swept through a wooded area, triggering a mandatory evacuation of residents and businesses from Kaywood Drive, south down County Road 1 to Highway 34 and east to Henrietta Avenue.

No structures were damaged or injuries reported in the wake of the fire. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

The fire had been spotted by a detection aircraft on routine patrol, according to Mark Carlstrom, area DNR Forestry supervisor.

An air attack plane coordinator as well as a single-engine air tanker distributing red fire retardant, three water-scooping Fire Boss aircraft and a helicopter fought the fire.

The "small, maneuverable and fast" single-engine AT-805F air tanker, equipped with a computer-controlled fire retardant dispersal system, is a recent addition to the DNR’s firefighting equipment, Carlstrom said. It’s also built by Air Tractor specifically for fighting wildfires.

The Park Rapids Fire Department was on scene with approximately 18 to 20 firefighters manning two tankers, a ladder truck as well as their first and second engines.

According to Park Rapids Assistant Fire Chief Terry Long, the Nevis Fire Department had one truck on scene, with others staging in case the fire was not as quickly contained as it was. 

Dennis & Girtz Excavating and Cumber Construction provided bulldozers. Typically, dozers help in firefighting efforts by removing flammable vegetation and clearing paths for equipment in wooded areas. 

The fire was contained in about an hour, Carlstrom said.

Evacuation

Initially, businesses along the Highway 34 corridor and residents in the area were asked to evacuate as the fire was moving very quickly, according to the Hubbard County Emergency Manager Brian Halbasch.

A command center was established at the east entrance to Walmart, said Park Rapids Police Chief Terry Eilers.

Road blocks were placed on Henrietta Ave. North, Hollinger and North Street.

"It got away real quick," Eilers said of the fire, adding it had potential to wreak much more damage if it had continued south-easterly, striking businesses, a gas station and homes.

"It was nice to hear the air tankers," Eilers said, noting they were a key component in fighting the blaze.

The air tankers came from a fire near Laporte to assist with the Park Rapids fire, he said.

Scooping water from Long Lake, the aircraft approached the fire by flying west, into the wind.

"Right in the middle of it, the wind shifted," Eilers said. The planes subsequently altered tactics, arriving from the south to drop water and fire retardant.

Within a 10-minute window of the ordered, mandatory evacuation, the fire was slowed down and businesses along Highway. 34 were asked to stand by and stay alert.

Park Rapids Walmart donated a pallet of bottled water to crews working on the scene.

Crews stayed in the area, working on small, hot spots after the flame was contained.

The roads were re-opened and evacuations lifted.

Stay away, stay away

Despite warnings to stay away, gawkers attempted to get a better view.

Park Rapids Police Officer Carrie Parks expressed frustration about the number of people she had to tell to leave the area.

Eilers said it’s best for the public to abide by emergency notifications.

"It plugs up the road and bungles things up for us to get our emergency vehicles onto the scene. We’ve got big pieces of equipment," he said.

Any delay can have a huge impact.

"A few minutes is critical," Eilers said.

Eilers explained they try to post as much information as possible online and through media outlets so people know what’s going on and, if it’s serious, to keep road clear for possible evacuation.

Curious onlookers "make it challenging," he said.

People wanting to assist or in need of directions should go to the command center first, Eilers advised.

As part of the Hubbard County Emergency Management System, Heartland Express buses were on standby at Walmart to assist with evacuations if need be, according to coordinator Linda Bair.

Businesses in the path

The fire threatened Mid-State Insulation and Knute-Nelson Home Care.

Laura Pike, RN branch manager at Knute-Nelson, said she had gone for a walk around 2:30 p.m. She smelled smoke, but didn’t see it.

Within 10 minutes of returning to the office, Pike and about five other workers were evacuated. She could see flames.

Northern Lights Dance Academy shares office space with Knute-Nelson.

Pike warned Kiala Rae, one of the dance instructors, to leave the building. Rae was unaware of the nearby fire.

"Thankfully, no students were there yet, so I grabbed my stuff and got out quickly. Very scary," Rae said.

At about 7 p.m. Tuesday evening, Pike returned to the office. She spoke with a soot-covered firefighter who said that, at one point, flames had jumped over the firefighters and they were certain Knute-Nelson would be lost, but a slight shift in the wind allowed them to regain control.

The fire was halted about 50 feet from the building, Pike said.

"It’s amazing they got it under control as fast as they did," said Kristin Gilmore, regional manager at Knute-Nelson.

School bus routes affected

Two Park Rapids School buses were diverted from their regular routes due to the fire.

The fire was blazing when students were released from school.

"It was right at that time," said Cindy Leach, the school district’s transportation director. Parents in the evacuation area were called and told to pick up their children at school.

"We remember the Menahga fire. We take it very seriously," Leach said.

"I give the bus drivers credit because the kids were excited and scared. They kept them calm," she added.

Leach also praised the rapid response by emergency teams.

Steamboat River Township fire

Three acres burned in Steamboat River Township at approximately the same time as the Park Rapids fire after a tree blew over and hit a power line, Carlstrom said.

Structures were endangered, but not damaged by the fire.

Firefighters from Bemidji, the U.S. Forest Service in Walker and the Lakeport Fire Department responded to the fire.

Fire alert remains high

A red flag warning had been issued for northwest Minnesota Tuesday due to wind velocity, temperature and low humidity.

The National Weather Service issues the alert when conditions could lead to dramatic increases in wildfire activity.

More than 100 fires broke out Monday and early Tuesday across the northern half of the state where green-up – the sprouting of new leaves on trees and the greening of grass – has yet to occur in many areas. April and May are historically northern Minnesota’s worst months for wildfires.

Fire conditions are expected to remain dangerous across northern Minnesota and Wisconsin for several days and burning restrictions are in place in many counties.

In Minnesota, 98 percent of wildfires are caused by humans, with the single largest cause escaped brush or debris pile fires.

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