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Picking up the pieces in Karlstad: Residents of fire-ravaged town work to recover life they had

Kathy Britten and her husband, Keith, lost their home in last month’s fire in Karlstad, Minn. Eric Hylden | Forum Communications1 / 2
An arson fire burned 4,400 acres in Kittson and Marshall counties one month ago. Eric Hylden | Forum Communications2 / 2

By Kevin Bonham

Forum Communications Co.

KARLSTAD – Jamie Baker was working at the nursing home here while her roommate Pam Johnson was at their rented house nearby when the evacuation order came on Oct. 2.

A 2-day-old, wind-driven wildfire had switched direction and was sweeping toward the community.

“My first reaction was that the people I cared for at the nursing home were taken care of, that they got the correct amount of care,” Baker said.

Then, they learned the fire was heading toward their house on the southwest edge of town.

Johnson called her fiancé, Christ Gust, who was 45 miles away in Roseau, to tell him to hurry back.

Baker, after helping evacuate the 44 nursing home residents, rushed home to discover the flames were within a few hundred feet of their house.

They started grabbing important belongings, stuffing the items into their vehicles. At the top of the list were Pam’s three cats – and her wedding dress.

“First and foremost, we each had two hands on that wedding dress,” Baker said.

After moving the belongings, they came back for more and to search outside for the last of the three cats.

“The fire was probably touching my house. We knew we had to get out of there,” Johnson said. “As we were leaving, the cat jumped from out of nowhere into my fiancé’s arms.”

The house they rented is one of 11 destroyed or severely damaged in and around the town of 760 that blustery day. Like the others who lost their homes they’re living in temporary accommodations, still picking up the pieces, trying to figure out where they’re going to live and just how long it will take before their lives are close to normal again.

Little has been done yet to erase the physical scars of the charred pockets of rubble in town, as property owners await insurance settlements and decide how to proceed.

A different fire

Kathy and Keith Britten are waiting for the insurance settlement, too.

Their home, a large ranch-style house with a walk-out basement tucked against the scrub oak woods about a mile southwest of Karlstad, was destroyed by the fire.

Wildfires are nothing new to the Brittens, who built the house 21 years ago.

Even when the emergency evacuation message came, Kathy Britten figured she had some time to get out.

“I folded some laundry, then got some of our farm financial records to take with us,” she said. “The fire was more to the west of us, and the wind was moving it away.”

Local volunteer firefighters have back-burned the area directly behind their house to protect it in years past. In previous wildfires, helicopters have dropped fire retardant on their property.

This time, it was different.

When she and her husband drove away, they stopped and looked as smoke engulfed the property.

“We couldn’t see the house, the smoke was too thick,” she said. ‘If the wind hadn’t switched this time, we’d still have a house.”

They were planning to sift through the rubble this weekend and then start the long clean-up process. If things go well, they’ll probably rebuild on the same property in the spring.

“It’s a slow process,” Karlstad Mayor Nick Amb said. “It’s got to play out with each family. We’re doing what we can as a community, but ultimately, the choice is theirs.”

Amb teaches junior high social studies at Tri-County School in Karlstad. No students were directly hit by fire, but, in this small community, virtually all of them know someone who lost property or one of the volunteer firefighters who worked around the clock.

Seeking arsonist

What stings the community today is the knowledge that the fire could have been prevented. Investigators say the fire, which ultimately burned about 4,400 acres in Marshall and Kittson counties, was the work of an arsonist.

About $8,500 has been raised for a reward for information that leads to an arrest and conviction. No arrests have been made, however.

Fire Chief Jeremy Folland and other emergency officials have reviewed procedures and actions, to see what could have been done differently to be better prepared in the future.

“It is literally unbelievable what took place,” Folland said days after the fire. “The first thing to remember is no one lost their lives.”

Volunteers from 16 different fire departments in northwest Minnesota also responded along with professional firefighters.

Many of those pros praised the local volunteer fire departments, saying it was their efforts that prevented fire from leveling the entire city.

Comeback plans

Mayor Amb said a group of individuals in the area is in the process of organizing a dinner to honor local volunteer firefighters and to raise money for their cause.

Since the fire, more than $30,000 has been raised, $20,000 of it through Northwest Community Action, based in nearby Badger, Minn. The city of Karlstad has been receiving monetary donations, too, totaling $13,000 to $14,000.

And donations of clothing and other items have filled large storerooms.

“Clothing was a big deal for the first few days,” the mayor said. “It’s slowed down some. But we still have some available for families in need.”

What isn’t used by mid-November likely will be given to relief organizations to be distributed someplace else.

The community also is talking about how to prevent damage from wildfires, which have become all too frequent in this part of the country.

“Dream big. That’s what we’ve been told to do,” Amb said.

One idea he and others find intriguing is an asphalt bike path that essentially would circle the community. Besides enhancing recreation, it also would serve as a firebreak.

Dreaming of future

Pam Johnson didn’t let the fire keep her from dreaming, either.

She put that rescued wedding dress to use a couple of weeks after the fire when she and Gust were married, with Baker serving as maid of honor.

The wedding was in Valley City, N.D., where Pam’s father is a Methodist minister.

The Gusts are living outside of Karlstad, in a cabin that belongs to Chris’ family. Baker is living with a co-worker. But they’re looking at houses to buy in town. One is the heavily-damaged house they had rented.

Baker likely will move in, too.

“We’re trying to all get back together, just one big, happy family,” she said.

“This community was amazing,” she added. “Even the firefighters. When they got here, one of them said, ‘Guys, there’s a wedding dress in there. We need to get it.’ Luckily, it was already safe.”

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