Two wildfires burning in northern Beltrami County
RED LAKE — Dale Zeidlik and his wife, Arnetta, didn’t know they would be on the frontline of two wildfires that would consume almost 7,000 acres by Tuesday afternoon.
But standing outside his home, near where the River Road fire began Monday morning, Red Lake Fire Chief Mark Sigana confirmed the Zeidlik’s were the first to call in one of two fires that nearly 50 firefighters continued to battle Tuesday night.
“This is the biggest in my time here,” said Sigana, chief for the past three years and a firefighter for 14 years before that. The situation near Red Lake played out across the state where 25 wildfires raged Tuesday, prompting an emergency executive order to be signed by Gov. Mark Dayton, providing assistance to the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center.
The River Road fire spread in grass marshes about 20 miles northwest of Red Lake, and was being fought by 15 firefighters. Its sister blaze, the Buffalo Ranch fire, had burned 4,900 acres by Tuesday afternoon, according to Jean Goad, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center. Fifty firefighters fought flames at Buffalo Ranch.
Beyond the two fires near Red Lake, portions of Park Rapids were being evacuated Tuesday evening due to a wildfire there, where winds nearing 30 mph were reported. Northwest of Red Lake, firefighters contended with gusts of up to 40 mph Sigana said.
Mike Beaulieu of the Red Lake Department of Natural Resources said both the River Road and Buffalo Ranch fires were caused by humans, but both remained under investigation.
“I used to pray for snow, but now I pray for rain, or for people to be more careful,” Beaulieu said.
With most of Minnesota under a red flag warning, issued when “critical fire conditions are expected,” according to the National Weather Service, Goad also stressed caution.
"We’re really urging people that, if they have a campfire, that they keep it small,” she said. “Keep a water source handy. And make sure (the fire) is completely out before leaving."
Not enough controlled burns
Weaving along bone dry dirt back roads between the River Road and Buffalo Ranch fires, Sigana pointed out fields, similar to those burning that had been purposefully torched by his department and the DNR. Beaulieu said part of the reason for the large swath of the dual blazes, ironically, was that not enough controlled burns were done before what he called the warmest and windiest day of the year hit.
“If it would have been a normal spring, we could have gotten more done,” he said. “But once those snows were gone, the burnable material is there.”
Private contractors worked with firefighters from the state’s DNR, Red Lake fire, the Leech Lake Department of Resource Management, Grant Portage fire, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to combat the blaze.
Joe Harris, with the Red Lake DNR, said scant precipitation Monday morning helped.
“If it wasn’t for the rain, it would’ve been much worse,” he said.
Beaulieu knows exactly what could be worse. A wildfire in 1987 forced evacuations of portions of Red Lake. “And we have the same conditions here,” he said.
Two air tankers pulled water from Lower Red Lake, and at least two helicopters used bladders hanging from their undercarriages to scoop water from nearby ponds and streams to quell the flames. But at 4:40 p.m. Tuesday, limits on the amount of time pilots can spend in the air were fast approaching.
“We’ve had quite a few fires across the state, so our aircraft have been fairly busy today,” Goad said.
Standing near scorched earth not far from his home, Dale Zeidlik expressed gratitude and relief.
“I think this one would have got us,” he said. “There are a lot of people who did a hell of a job, and I wish I knew of a way to thank them.”
John Hageman contributed to this report.