Snow, cold may end fire risk

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

Firefighters hope wintry weather will put an end to the lingering fires that raced across nearly 15 square miles in northwest Minnesota Tuesday.

Dry conditions, high winds and warm temperatures fueled nine wildfires in the region Tuesday. As of Wednesday afternoon, crews are still responding to eight active fires.

Fire officials said the changing weather could help extinguish many of the blazes. A cold front moving into northern Minnesota is expected to bring rain Wednesday and snow overnight into Thursday morning.

One of the fires is in far northern Beltrami County, west of Upper Red Lake near Fourtown. That blaze has burned 4,000 acres and is 10 percent contained, fire officials said.

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The fire started about 100 miles northwest of Bemidji and is moving east and northeast, according to Beltrami County Sheriff's Office emergency management director Beryl Wernberg.

Although the Beltrami County fire is burning eastward, a cold weather front has pushed much of the smoke to the south. County officials are asking residents not to call law enforcement unless they see actual fire.

"Our dispatch phones are overrun with inquiries," Wernberg said in an email.

The Department of Natural Resources closed several nearby forest roads Tuesday and asked campers to leave the Faunce and Norris campgrounds.

The Minnesota National Guard deployed another Blackhawk helicopter Wednesday to assist fire crews. The aircraft will join two Blackhawks, one CH-47 Chinook helicopter, two fuel trucks and 26 soldiers sent by the National Guard earlier this week.

There have been no serious injuries reported among firefighters or among residents in the area, said Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jean Goad. Much of the remaining wildfire isn't threatening homes or other structures today.

Click for more photos of the fire in Karlstad, Minn.

One fire Tuesday burned to the edge of the city of Karlstad, 30 miles south of the Canadian border, and forced some evacuations. Winds of 40 miles per hour moved the fire so quickly "that nobody could deploy quick enough," said Kittson County Sheriff Kenny Hultgren.

"It was unbelievable," he said.

The fire near Karlstad is still active, has burned more than 4,700 acres, and is 5 percent contained.

The blaze destroyed four houses, two garages, seven mobile homes and 22 outbuildings, according to an initial damage estimate Wednesday by Fire Chief Jeremy Folland. Authorities evacuated the nursing home, school and several homes Tuesday. Authorities are asking that residents who left wait until this afternoon to return.

Hultgren said today he'll start assessing the needs of residents.

"Emergency services now will go to work and start to determine who needs what in terms of housing, or anything we can do to assist them that way," he said.

Crews are mopping up and monitoring hot spots. Folland, the fire chief, said he's feeling much better about the conditions so far today.

"Grass fires in this area are common fall and spring," he said. "The conditions, I can tell you, were way above extreme. We've seen fires this size but not fires that have moved this fast at this size."