Wildfires break out near Park Rapids and NW Wisconsin

Firefighter
A firefighter with the Park Rapids Fire Department battles a blaze north of Menahga, Minn. along Highway 71 on Wednesday, May 15, 2013.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- High temperatures and desert-like humidity readings are helping drive an outbreak of wildfires in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Minnesota Interagency Fire Center on Wednesday said the Green Valley Fire near Menahga has prompted evacuations and has damaged some structures in the area. They nearly doubled the estimated size of the fire to 7,100 acres this afternoon.

The fire started about 3 p.m. on private land northwest of Menagha and is estimated to be between 3,000 and 4,000 acres in size. "Strong winds and dry conditions contributed to fire spread. The effects of the drought linger and vegetation is extremely dry," said an update this morning from the Minnesota Incident Command System. The report said an unconfirmed number of homes and other structures have been lost to the fire already.

One of those belonged to Terry Burkman's brother, Bruce, who was out of state when the fire reached his property near Menahga, south of Park Rapids.

''I never thought his house would burn because its steel sided, steel roof. Nothing close. So I was surprised, i thought that would be one house that wouldn't burn being it was all steel. But somehow, coals got into the inside, and just burnt it down. It's just a pile of scrap metal, about three, four feet high.''

Ron Sannow, a spokesman with the fire-fighting effort, said the fire is still five to six miles long and a mile to a mile-and-a-half wide. He said fire crews from neighboring counties are helping with the effort.

"We are hitting it as hard today as we hit it on the initial run, because we want to pin this thing in the spot it's at right now. We don't want to lose one more piece of personal property, and we certainly don't want any injuries

The Minnesota National Guard has dispatched two Blackhawk helicopters with 600-gallon buckets and a Chinook helicopter with a 2,000-gallon bucket to the area.

"These are massive pieces of equipment and will do a lot of good work out here when we find hot spots," Sannow said. Highway 71 between Park Rapids and Menahga is closed between County Road 87 to the north and Main Street in Menahga to the south.

No injuries have been reported, although about 60 residents from the Green Pine Acres nursing home adn Woodside Acres assisted living in Menahga were temporarily evacuated to the Sebka high school overnight. They returned to Menagha this morning.

Firefighters are also battling fires near Red Lake. The Buffalo Ranch blaze was estimated at about 4,900 acres, and a Blackhawk helicopter and Chinook helicopter from the Minnesota National Guard helped fight the nearby River Road fire. Fires were also burning near Camp Ripley, Virginia, Salo, Sturgeon Lake, Hinckley, Wright and Atkinson. Fire experts said humidity was as low as 8 percent in parts of the state Tuesday, with temperatures hitting 100 degrees in others.

Officials expect cooler temperatures, lighter winds and higher humidity today, which could help ease some of the fire danger.

Brett Ahern, who lives about seven miles from the Menahga fire, said Wednesday morning that he couldn't see the smoke from his home like he could the day before. But the smell of smoke was still strong, he said. At one point on Tuesday, Ahern and his wife thought they might need to evacuate because of the wind direction.

"We weren't aware that it was a fire for awhile. We're on a lake and it's sort of down in the woods. What we noticed is what we thought was a very severe dust storm obscuring the other end of the lake and then realized that it was actually smoke and dust combined," Ahern said. ''We had made minor arrangements -- just the very basic things: our cats, our computers and minimum clothing, but I never really thought it was a threat once I looked at the wind direction and where the fire was located."

WISCONSIN

A large wildfire in northwest Wisconsin is now nearly 90 percent contained, authorities said. The blaze burning about 50 miles southeast of Duluth is 8,700 acres in size, with a perimiter of close to 20 miles.

The fire forced about 75 people to evacuate their homes, and has destroyed 47 structures, including 17 homes. No injuries have been reported.

A smoky wildfire in northwestern Wisconsin
A smoky wildfire in northwestern Wisconsin near the town of Gordon is spreading to 6,800 acres has destroyed at least 50 structures and forced dozens of residents to leave their homes.
Courtesy Wisconsin DNR

Fire Information Officer Neal Kephart said firefighters made good progress Tuesday night. "Crews battled it all night long, hitting it real hard at night, because that tends to be when the fire will kind of lull, quiet down a little bit, as humidities increase and temperatures drop, and the winds did die down, did cooperate," he said.

Kephart said two water bombing airplanes from Ontario will aid efforts Wednesday. But he said the weather is again a concern, with warm temperatures and high winds in the forecast.

"With the long winter season to compress a lot of that dead material into the ground, lots of that fuel with the wind was able to take off and burn pretty good," he said.

Even with the fire being mostly contained, authorities told some residents to evacuate again on Wednesday, said Janet Botten, whose home in Barnes, Wis., on Ellington Lake was barely spared. Several homes nearby were destroyed, and Botten said fire destroyed lawn furniture and an enclosed trailer and snowmobile on her property. While Botten and her neighbors evacuated, firefighters hosed down her home and several others before the fire swept through.

"I thought our house was going to be gone," she said. "You could not believe what it looked like. You couldn't even see, and then you'd turn around and look in the other direction and the sky was blue and sunny."

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