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Bemidji firefighters Jake Premo and Tom Skime work to put out a blaze in a peat bog near Gully. Photo courtesy Bemidji Fire Department

Bemidji crews provide aid in battling wild land fire

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Bemidji crews provide aid in battling wild land fire
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

A fire burning near Gully, Minn., serves as an example of the region's unusual weather recently.

It also highlights the cooperative, collaborative effort among those who fight fires across Minnesota.


Members of the Bemidji Fire Department spent three days over the New Year's weekend providing aid to the state's Department of Natural Resources, which has been working to extinguish the fire since Dec. 26.

Known as the Boxing Day fire because it started the day after Christmas (known as Boxing Day), the wild fire in Polk County burned rapidly through wooded areas due to dry conditions and high winds.

Brian Pisarek, incident commander on the scene and a DNR fire program forester, said firefighters faced "long, cold days" and battled tough conditions: freezing equipment, bone-chilling wind chills and strong winds.

Several departments provided aid to the DNR, bringing water to the site since it couldn't be kept overnight due to freezing conditions and water sources which would typically have been used were frozen.

The fire penetrated peat bogs, stumps and trees in the area, making it difficult to extinguish in the 750-acre swath of private land. Crews used excavators and dozers to stir up about 160 acres of burning peat.

"We're finding new spots every day," said Pisarek, adding Wednesday looks to be the last day for most firefighters.

The most firefighters on scene was Sunday, when there were 85, but that number dipped Monday to 52, Pisarek said.

From Friday through Sunday, six Bemidji firefighters spent daylight hours at the fire.

"It's pretty unusual for the DNR folks to have a wild land fire this time of year," said Bemidji Fire Chief Dave Hoefer, who helped coordinate water supply efforts from Bemidji, Oakley, Fosston and Clearbrook.

"Part of it is the extremely dry conditions we had this fall. It was a very unique fire."

Bemidji firefighters gathered at the downtown fire station at 6:30 a.m. for the 50-mile trek to Gully. The assisting firefighters would gather for a briefing before heading out into the field.

In addition to Hoefer coordinating water supply efforts, Bemidji also had two firefighters working on tanker trucks, two on wild land engines and another on a portable pump.

Hoefer said providing mutual aid is common for his department of eight career and 40 paid, on-call firefighters.

"We're very big into helping one another," he said. "Everyone needs help from time to time, including us."

However, the Gully wild land fire didn't hamper local firefighter's efforts in extinguishing a garage fire Friday night. Eighteen firefighters responded to the fire, which caused about $51,000 in damages to the garage and contents. Firefighters prevented the blaze from spreading to a nearby home, which suffered heat damage to some of its siding.

The Gully wild land fire, which jeopardized one home and destroyed some hunting stands, has not been undetermined. To date, it has cost $175,000 to fight the blaze, Pisarek said.

"If we find out who is responsible, we would bill them," he said. If not, the state will end up picking up the firefighting costs.

The dry conditions are strange this time of year in Minnesota, prompting the DNR to implement burn restrictions in most of the state. Burning permits are needed for debris and vegetation burning.

According to the DNR, burning restrictions will change as weather conditions and snow cover change. Burning permits are required whenever there is less than three inches of continuous snow surrounding a planned burn area.

On Monday, the fire danger rating for Beltrami County was moderate, meaning fires start easily and burn at a moderate rate.

Steve Wagner
Grand Forks Herald Editor Steve Wagner can be reached at 701.780.1104 and He joined the Herald in April 2013, and previously worked as editor at the Bemidji (Minn.) Pioneer and in several newsroom roles -- including news director, investigative reporter and cops/court reporter - at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. His experience includes extensive reporting related to Dru Sjodin's disappearance and the federal death penalty case for her murderer, Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., along with projects about immigration, the fatal 2002 train derailment in Minot, N.D., and the 20th anniversary of Gordon Kahl's massacre of U.S. marshals. Wagner also worked as a reporter at newspapers in the Twin Cities and Iowa. In his spare time, Wagner is an avid runner and occasionally writes about his experiences on his blog, Addicted to Running.
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