Elderly man killed trying to extinguish fast moving grass fire on Wilkin County farm

His brother tried to help but was overcome by smoke and had to go inside for oxygen.

Wilkin County fatal fire
A fast-moving grass fire in Wilkin County claimed the life of the landowner, and charred several vehicles including a semitrailer on Sunday, Oct. 30.
Matt Henson / WDAY News

WILKIN COUNTY, Minn. — Two days after the deadly grass fire started, it is still glowing and smoldering on the property.

Virgil Fankhanel said it started in a ditch late Sunday afternoon, Oct. 30, behind his farmstead just south of Barnesville.

It's an area between his property and his brother Arnold Fankhanel's property, who lives next door.

"Just trying to stomp it out," Virgil Fankhanel said, describing how he tried to put it out with his brother.

Virgil Fankhanel grabbed a fire extinguisher to help his brother keep the flames from spreading to nearby outbuildings on the farmsteads, along with some cars including a semitrailer.


However, the smoke became too much for Virgil Fankhanel, so he went inside.

"I went home and put on the oxygen mask," he said.

In the meantime, a passerby called 911.

It was then discovered that Arnold Fankhanel was missing.

"The sheriff came over and asked where he was. I said he was there when I left," said Virgil Fankhanel.

After firefighters extinguished the fire two hours later, Arnold Fankhanel's body was found by a shed.

"We think (the fire started by) just burning some grass and (that) got away from the individual," said Barnesville Fire Department Chief Andrew Boyum.

The fire burned about 5 acres and destroyed a number of cars and the semitrailer.


Firefighters were able to protect both houses from the fire that was fueled by warm temperatures, dry grass and a light breeze.

Two outbuildings did begin to smolder, but firefighters put those out right away.

Boyum said it's a normal response to fight the fire yourself, but the best bet is to call 911 right away, especially when the fire danger is high.

"Aside from burns and that kind of stuff from trying to fight the fire yourself, cardiac (arrest) is common, too, from overexertion," Boyum said.

The Wilkin County Sheriff's Office is still waiting to hear from the medical examiner with the official cause of Arnold Fankhanel's death.

Matt Henson is an Emmy award-winning reporter/photographer/editor for WDAY. Prior to joining WDAY in 2019, Matt was the main anchor at WDAZ in Grand Forks for four years. He was born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia and attended college at Lyndon State College in northern Vermont, where he was recognized twice nationally, including first place, by the National Academy for Arts and Science for television production. Matt enjoys being a voice for the little guy. He focuses on crimes and courts and investigative stories. Just as often, he shares tear-jerking stories and stories of accomplishment. Matt enjoys traveling to small towns across North Dakota and Minnesota to share their stories. He can be reached at and at 610-639-9215. When he's not at work (rare) Matt resides in Moorhead and enjoys spending time with his daughter, golfing and attending Bison and Sioux games.
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