Wildfire forces evacuations near Karlstad

Controlled burn
Firefighter Alicia Pasquerillo ignites a "backburn" or controlled fire on the east side of Karlstad, Minn. on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012. The controlled burn was just a few hundred yards from a number of homes and a church.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

Crews fought a wildfire late into Tuesday night near the Canadian border, after it forced evacuations and destroyed a number of homes.

At one point, the wind-whipped blaze almost surrounded the town of Karlstad, and many local residents are counting their blessings after what felt like a very close call.

Incident commander Orlin Anderson said Wednesday morning that the fire is about 95 percent contained. He said the fire burned four houses, three mobile homes, 2 garages, 10 outbuildings and a warehouse. As many as 100 people had to be evacuated from the area, but they may be allowed to return to the area Wednesday afternoon.

Among those evacuated were about 40 nursing home residents. As they were loaded on buses at First Lutheran Church in the late afternoon, church staff worked the phones, tracking down missing medication and finalizing temporary housing for residents.

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"It's something you can't really practice for," said Marlene Pearson, who works at the assisted living facility attached to the nursing home. "You think you can, but not like we go through in a real life situation. But it's good. Nobody burned up and our facility is still standing. It's great."

A smoke-stained mask hung around Pearson's neck as she bustled around the church, insisting she was too busy to be frightened when fire came within a few feet of the nursing home.

Outside the church, Ruth Halverson stood on the lawn snapping photos of a column of black smoke that was billowing into the sky just outside of town. When the fire threatened the south side of town, she helped evacuate about 215 students from the school where she's the librarian, then headed for the nursing home to help.

"I saw a whole parade of wheelchairs coming up the sidewalk. And they brought the med carts and oxygen machines and food. And the residents were all quite calm," she said, relieved as the winds died down late in the day and the flames began to subside.

"And now they're predicting snow," Halvorsen said. "But we will welcome anything that's wet."

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

Across town at the fire hall, a tired Mayor Nick Amb monitored the situation. He's also a school teacher, so he helped make sure all the evacuated students found their parents, then helped evacuate the nursing home. Students will have Wednesday off of school, but the mayor will have a lot of assignments.

"I don't know what my day is going to look like because I've never done this before. I guess it's just doing one thing at a time and doing what I can to help out," he said. "I think we're pretty resilient people here. I think structures get rebuilt. I think that people do what it takes to get their lives back to what it was before. But you just see the community spirit out here. You look at all the people who are here to help in any way they can. That's what small towns do best."

Spokeswoman Jean Goad of the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center says the fire destroyed six to eight homes in the Karlstad area, but no deaths or injuries are reported.


Firefighters from small towns across northwest Minnesota, along with state and federal fire crews, will be mopping up around Karlstad on Wednesday, and trying to get the upper hand on several other fires across the region.

Fire crews reopened roads in Karlstad Tuesday night but asked residents who left earlier in the day not to return until noon Wednesday, said fire information officer Gil Knight, reached Tuesday evening from the fire command center in Karlstad.

Dry, windy conditions fueled as many as eight wildfires in northwest Minnesota. A fire near the city of Viking destroyed four out-buildings and led to the evacuation of some homes near the city, according to a statement released Thursday night by the Minnesota Incident Command System.

Crews battled and managed to contain three fires on the Red Lake Indian reservation earlier in the day. A separate blaze broke out south of the town of Red Lake and came close to several houses, but ground crews stopped it with assistance from a tanker crew.

The Minnesota National Guard sent about two dozen personnel, along with two Blackhawk helicopters, a CH-47 Chinook helicopter and a refueling tanker, to help fight the flames. Fire departments from North Dakota also assisted local fire crews. The National Weather Service described fire conditions as "critical" and issued a red flag warning for most of western Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas.

Minnesota National Guard helicopter pilot Marc Rassler said that the drought that helped spark the fires is also making firefighting difficult.

"We'll go to where ever we can find a sustainable water source, and to be honest, there's not that many up here," Rassler said. "So we were literally dipping out of little feeding ponds for farmers or ranchers cattle."

Kittson County Sheriff Kenny Hultgren said he flew over the fires Tuesday evening in a Border Patrol helicopter.

"Just about every fire that was going had units by it," Hultgren said. "I couldn't even begin to tell you how many departments were there. But it was the most I'd ever seen."

Incident commander Anderson said crews are hoping for a break today.

"Basically, this morning, we're going to go out and assess the situation, check out all the fire lines and find out where we're going to send crews," he said. "We have a briefing at 9 o'clock this morning, and after that, we'll send crews out to the areas where they're needed. We got some great news that we might get 4 to 6 inches of snow tonight. Not that I want snow, but it would put a definite end to this situation."


MPR's Tim Nelson contributed to this report.