After the Fire
Tuesday, October 2nd was probably the largest, local fire event that has ever occurred in my lifetime. Dry conditions and high winds combined to create several large, incredibly dangerous grass fires-determined fire crews and actions of volunteers were all that stood between this event becoming one of emergency services finest hours and human tragedy.
There were large fires across much of Northwest Minnesota on that day. I want to focus on the Viking, Minnesota fire as I am familiar with that area, had the opportunity to speak with the firefighters and participated in this emergency as a dispatcher with the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office. The fire began east of Viking at approximately the intersection of the Lilac Ridge Road and Marshall County #2.
The Viking Fire Department was called to a wildfire in its early maturity about 1230 Tuesday afternoon. This was a fire that would require each person to constantly re-think and accept new realities as they fought it. Most of the fires in our area will stop at natural barriers and therefore fighting them requires established procedure, knowledge of the geography and work. This was a fire driven by forty mile plus winds that did not recognize established barriers and had come to change everyone’s perception about fire.
By one that afternoon, Viking Fire chief Brian Bolstad, made the first in a series of good decisions that day-he called for help. Thief River Falls Fire was first to arrive and played a big part in saving the first couple of homes the fire had planned to destroy. The problem was that as the fire raged, it got stronger. Human’s do not get stronger over time, we tire. Many fights wold be made against the fire that day and help came from Goodridge, Newfolden, and Plummer fire departments.
I spoke with Jamie Miramontes and Nate Koland about the origin of the fire. They volunteer for Viking Fire. It is Nate’s first week with the department and could not have know what was about to happen. Jamie and Nate experienced the deception that comes with a fire this large. They believed they were fighting the body of a fire bearing northeast when in truth, they were only pulling on its tail. It was a massive fire and smoke hid the outline of the true beast that strode away from them. Deer fled the forest in an eastward direction which perhaps revealed the true northward progression of the fire. The two volunteers accepted this new reality and tried to get around to the front of the fire but in 15 minutes it had traveled the quarter mile and crossed Marshall county #2.(a large tar road)
This fire chose the playing field based on available fuel (grass, trees), wind and moisture. The fire departments could add moisture and remove fuel with backfires but they needed to change the playing field. The volunteers needed volunteers. There is no way possible that volunteer fire departments could afford the equipment needed to fight this particular fire. Thief River Radio broadcast a request for help, massive help. They needed bulldozers, tractors with tillage and operators. Farmers pressured with last-second field work and heavy-equipment operators racing freeze-up left their workplaces and took a spot on the fire line. In some cases, they were so close to the fire that they could feel the pressure and heat of the fire only feet away.
The fire jumped Marshall County road #8 (a very wide gravel road)somewhere north of Davin Halvorson’s place. This was a crucial time in the life of the fire as it was here that it destroyed two buildings and had the chance for more. The fire was not a ball but more like a hand with fingers leading it. It came close enough to homes to burn siding but that is all it got. Drop tanks are like heavy-duty, above-ground swimming pools. Two drop-tanks were set-up and filled by fire tanker trucks, farmers with water tanks and concrete trucks. These spots were set-up based on accessibility, progression of the fire and geography. Firefighters then filled truck from the tanks and went to cut the fingers as the hand of the fire sought more fuel. Local knowledge of the terrain proved to be very important as natural barriers and field roads were an importance part of the playing field. This was a fire that jumped roads and even previously prepared tilled fire breaks one hundred feet in width. In some cases, volunteers disked, bulldozed and chisel-plowed areas much larger than would have previously ever been needed. This was a fire that required everyone to think bigger and accept changing situations, only partially seen through smoke, as new realities.
In the end, the firemen say the same thing; they are thankful and proud of the support of their communities. They asked me to tell you THANK-YOU. They are thankful to mutual aid assistance from other volunteer departments, farmer and heavy construction volunteers and to the people who provided them much-needed food and water. These are the same people who left work to fight a fire that was beyond most of our concepts and won. It was the cooperation, resourcefulness, quick-thinking and courage of these people that made all the difference. They are the best of us and we are lucky to have them.
As a footnote, if I forgot to mention anyone who helped in this fight, I am sorry. You have our thanks even if you did not appear here in name or by group.