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Firefighters remember blazes of last October

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BEMIDJI – Moist with melting snow, the ground currently isn’t ripe for a wildfire.

But that wasn’t the case on Oct. 2, 2012, when a perfect storm of wind, dry fields and multiple fires had area departments scrambling to keep up.

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Four fires - on Union Road near Bemidji, in Viking, outside Karlstad and North Minnie - were part of of a larger inferno that prompted an Emergency Executive Order from Governor Mark Dayton. But firefigthers in Karlstad already knew how bad it was. First, they evacuated the nursing home. Then, the rest of the town.

Greg Vollhaber, Chief of the Kelliher Fire Department, also works with the Department of Natural Resources to manage wildfires. He was on the ground that day, along with many of those gathered at the Bemidji Fire Department Thursday night to strategize if the perfect storm repeats itself.

“As you’re driving down the road, homeowners are coming out to ask you to save their house,” he said, remembering what firefighters across northern Minnesota dealt with in the smoky chaos. “Everybody is competing for you, and it’s understandable.”

And the firefighters, battling blazes that took out tens of thousands of acres last October, and in Karlstad destroyed 35 buildings, were in some cases working against one another.

“We were competing for resources,” Vollhaber said.

Along with Bemidji Fire Chief Dave Hoefer, Vollhaber broke down the path of the fire, and the strategies used both to combat the blaze and communicate among the chaos. In some cases, it was as simple as using a yellow flag. Hoefer ripped of a two-foot piece of fire scene tape, just like firefighters and police did when they marked homes that had already been evacuated during the Union Road fire.

“You were able to drive down the road and immediately tell where we’d already been,” said Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp, a member of the audience who, like others Thursday night, submitted comments, questions and concerns in the event of future events as massive as those last October.

Flames seared land quickly outside Karlstad that day, making time a commodity almost as valuable as water, in short supply, pilots of C-215 aircraft found when pulling the liquid from area lakes. One field, shown in photos taken from the air, showed a blackened lot 15 acres in size. It took less than 10 minutes to burn.

There was discussion of staging areas and command posts, as well as the technical difficulties of communicating over two different radio frequencies: Cass and Hubbard counties operate on an 800 megahertz system; Beltrami County uses VHF system ranging from 30 to 300 megahertz.

“We’re not really sure how that is going to work,” Vallhaber said.

Regardless of the challenges, many of which were seen in great number last October, mother nature seemed to be the biggest factor in discussion of the day’s events. As the fields smoldered early the next day, snow began to fall. When it was done, 15 fresh inches coated the area.

But even that wasn’t enough.

“In places, you could see it melting,” Vollhaber said. “You could see the steam coming up.”

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Justin Glawe
Reporting on crime, courts and Beltrami county government. Follow me on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
(218) 333-9200 x343
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