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Grateful homeowners thank Bemidji firefighters after Menahga blaze

Menahga fire

BEMIDJI —It was the largest fire David Gould had seen in his short time with the Bemidji Fire Department.

He and 10 other local firefighters were called Tuesday night to the scene of a rapidly expanding wildfire north of Menahga in Wadena County. There, they were assigned to the head of the fire, where flames were only a few hundred yards away from a home.

Today, the smell of smoke hangs in the air and much of the land is burned, but the Merchants still have a place to live.

"And honestly, if it wasn’t for the Bemidji firefighters, we would not have a home today," said Mary Merchant, who has lived at the house with her husband Charles for almost a decade. "I cannot speak highly enough about them and our gratitude and how appreciative we are."

The Merchants headed into Park Rapids on Tuesday evening to run errands when they heard on the radio that the wildfire was west of State Highway 71, and directly west of their home. They turned around, Merchant said, when they were told to evacuate.

Merchant camped out at the end of their gravel road, where she watched the smoke grow darker. She knew it was getting closer.

"I don’t think anybody was aware at that time that our house was here and how it was in direct line of the fire," Merchant said.

Once they called 911, a Menahga fire truck arrived, followed by "quite a few" Bemidji fire trucks, Merchant said.

"They figured it was coming for them," said Gould, a volunteer on-call firefighter who has been with the department since 2011. "They were just full of joy that we showed up and were able to help them out, to get out there and fight it back."

Bemidji was one of more than 40 fire departments called to the scene this past week, along with state and federal firefighters. Fire chief Dave Hoefer said they were aware that a wildfire was burning near Park Rapids, but weren’t sure they would be asked to assist.

That call came in at about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. Firefighters were on the road soon after.

"They had already tapped all of the local and county resources down there at that point," Hoefer said. "And they still weren’t making significant progress on the fire yet. So that’s when they started reaching out farther for additional equipment."

The 11 firefighters, along with the four vehicles they brought, arrived at the staging area at the Menahga fire station Tuesday night and were assigned to protect the Merchants’ home, a detached garage and some outbuildings east of Menahga.

"Actually, right around the structure itself was what we’d refer to as a really good defendable space," Hoefer said. "The grass was short…we had an open space that we could draw a pretty good line in the sand, so to speak, and defend."

Not all homes in the area were as lucky. According to the Minnesota Incident Command System, 12 residences were lost on Tuesday, along with two commercial properties and 41 outbuildings. Merchant said she knows people who lost their homes.

"(They’re) a little displaced," Merchant said. "Some are staying with family, some are staying with friends. Even within a family not all of them are together. But…people are great about helping out."

Bemidji firefighter Chris Loebs said it was the largest fire he had seen in his 14 years with the department.

"I felt it went well," he said of the department’s response. "Especially when we got back and we saw the aerial photographs and where we were."

Bemidji firefighters returned Wednesday night to perform some recon work in the area and allow the locals to get some rest, Hoefer said. Some returned to the home they saved the previous night to check on the home, Merchant said.

Gould said he felt "honored" to help out a community more than an hour away from his own.

"As far as the fire and getting the job done, I felt pretty confident in our team and our training that we could do what it took to defend their structure," Gould said.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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