NW Minnesota fires may burn for months

Jim Haire's destroyed home
Jim Haire walks away from his destroyed home in Karlstad, Minn. on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. Haire's home, and three nearby unoccupied trailers, were consumed by a wildfire on Tuesday.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

Fire crews are still at work in northwestern Minnesota, responding to eight wildfires that continue to flare up and shift. Perfect conditions -- drought and wind -- sparked nine fires Tuesday that threatened several communities.

It may be some time before those fires are fully extinguished. That's because many of them ignited peat bogs. Northwest Minnesota contains many of the state's 6 million acres of peatland -- which is wet, spongy ground made of decomposing vegetation.

Peat can smolder for a long time because the material itself contains oxygen. When it's very dry, it takes on a water-resistant quality that makes putting out the fire tedious work.

Even heavy snow won't put those fires out, according to DNR public information officer Ron Sanow.

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"If we've got peat burning, it's burning down 12 to 18 inches. [The snow is] going to be a huge benefit, but it's not going to put this thing to sleep until it's out. It's a potential ignition source to take off again when the weather conditions are right."

Jim Haire's birdfeeder
Most of Jim Haire's birdfeeder survived a wildfire that destroyed his home in Karlstad, Minn. on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2012. He said Wednesday that he didn't have any insurance and was planning on staying with relatives for the time being.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

Sanow says it's hard to say how long it will take to extinguish the fires. In fact, at least one of the fires now burning is a peat fire that has been smoldering since the summer and reignited last week.

While crews are still fighting the wildfires, residents in the town of Karlstad, a town of about 700 near the Canadian border, began assessing the damage.

The fire skirted Karlstad Tuesday, picking off homes, garages and outbuildings as it jumped from one wooded area to another on the edge of town.

Some residents were evacuated and school closed early Tuesday when the fire came closer.

Some of the worst damage was in a mobile home park, where four homes were reduced to twisted gray piles of rubble.

The fire destroyed or significantly damaged four house, two garages, seven mobile homes and 22 various outbuildings, according to Fire Chief Jeremy Folland.

The burned Englund family home
A wildfire destroyed the Englund family estate on the Pembina Trail in Karlstad, Minn. on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012. The homeowner said Wednesday that it was built in 1905 and was kept in the family ever since.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

Jim Haire and his wife, Letty, lived in one of the mobile homes that was destroyed. He was back on Wednesday to load the remains of a few guns into his van. Haire said he was fighting the fire with a garden hose when he was ordered to leave.

"I grabbed some stuff off one of the chairs in the kitchen and we went out," he said. "My wife grabbed the dog. I was going to go back for the cat, but when the sheriff booted us out I forgot about the cat."

The couple lived in the mobile home for 30 years. They have no fire insurance, and Haire is still struggling to comprehend what they lost.

"I keep hoping I'll wake up from it and it's just a dream," he said. "It doesn't seem like it, though. It's irreplaceable. Even if I had insurance I still wouldn't be satisfied. Even if it paid me thousands of dollars, because it wouldn't be me. Wouldn't be mine."

Haire and his wife will stay with family while they consider their options, he said.

Home destroyed
The homeowner of the Englund family estate on the Pembina Trail in Karlstad, Minn. surveys damage on Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 after a wildfire destroyed his home, garage, and collection of classic cars.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

The other three mobile homes that burned down were unoccupied.

On the other side of town, one of Karlstad's oldest dwellings was destroyed. The home had been owned by the same family since it was built in 1905. The current owner was too distraught to talk about the fire.

The losses could have been much worse given the high winds and rapidly expanding fire, according to Kittson County Sheriff Kenny Hultgren.

"The 45 mile an hour winds pushing that fire, there was no way they could stop the fire from engulfing everything," he said. "Everybody was kind of working behind the eight ball and doing the best they could."

It will take a few days for officials to put together a complete damage assessment, Hultgren said.

Fire investigators are also on the scene, trying to trace the origins of the fire. It will take a couple of weeks to complete the investigation, according to Minnesota DNR fire investigator Jason Kern.

When a fire causes widespread property damage it's always important to determine the cause, Kern said. If any of the fires were deliberately set there could be significant penalties.

"They are responsible for not only the criminal end of things, but the civil end," said Kern. "So all the costs of [fighting] this fire could be passed on to them. Plus the damages that have been incurred to the landowners and homeowners as well."

There's no tally yet on the costs of the fire fight, but at least 16 local fire departments and state and federal fire crews are involved in the effort.


The largest of the wildfires is getting its own incident management team.

Two-hundred seventy firefighters are working the eight fires, said fire information officer Gil Knight. He said no one has been hurt.

Knight said the eight fires in the Wannaska Complex have burned an estimated 30,000 acres as of Wednesday. He said the North Minnie fire near Red Lake is the largest by far, at nearly 25,000 acres, and is getting special attention.

"We're taking it out of the complex and giving it over to a type 2 team to manage that fire only," Knight said. "That will provide specific management to that incident without having added fires to take care of as well."

Heavy snow forecast for overnight Wednesday in northwestern Minnesota will be a big help.

MPR reporter Matt Sepic contributed to this story.