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Published May 15, 2013, 09:17 AM

Wildfires raging near Park Rapids zero percent contained

Officials say structures have been lost in the 10-mile-wide blaze that began Tuesday afternoon and as of this morning had scorched 3,000 to 4,000 acres.

PARK RAPIDS, Minn. – As the Rev. Jim Neubauer stood outside St. John’s Lutheran Church here on Tuesday, he watched the billowing smoke of the nearby raging wildfires, looking for slight changes in color.

A Hubbard County sheriff’s deputy told him the shifting colors were a sign of devastation.

“He said, ‘The sad thing is when you see the smoke color change, it’s probably another house going up (in flames),’ ” Neubauer said. “You could see the smoke change every once in a while.”

Officials say structures have been lost in the 10-mile-wide blaze that began Tuesday afternoon and as of this morning had scorched 3,000 to 4,000 acres.

No details were available, however, as to the number and type of structures damaged.

Private lands, homes, cabins and other structures remain at risk, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which said this morning the fire was zero percent contained as of 6 a.m.

Officials said fire crews will focus today on protecting threatened structures and containing the fire using heavy equipment and aircraft.

Equipment including engines, tracked vehicles and dozers are being assigned to fight the fire, according to the DNR.

Multiple air resources are also being used in the fight, including helicopters and single-engine air tankers.

The Minnesota National Guard has sent two Blackhawk helicopters with 600-gallon buckets and a Chinook helicopter with a 2,000-gallon bucket.

Around 9 p.m. Tuesday, officials with the DNR asked the entire town of Menahga, population 1,306, to evacuate and head south to Sebeka.

Green Pine Acres, a nursing home at 427 Main Ave. in Menahga, was also evacuated. The DNR was offering air support as windgusts of more than 30 mph fanned the flames.

St. John’s Lutheran Church in Park Rapids opened its doors to evacuees, but no one had arrived by 10 p.m., Neubauer said.

“A lot of people here either have family or close friends they can stay with,” he said.

Neubauer said the closest flames remained about 5 ½ miles from the city of Park Rapids.

Park Rapids, a city of more than 3,700, is about 100 miles northeast of Fargo.

The church was cut off from receiving Menahga evacuees since Highway 71 southbound and County Road 23 were closed.

Neubauer said a steady stream of phone calls came in to the church Tuesday from people asking how they could help.

Dispatchers for the Becker County Sheriff’s Office said fire crews from at least eight county entities had deployed to the Park Rapids area Tuesday night.

Brian Shawn, director of the Minn-Kota Region American Red Cross in Fargo, said they had received no official reports of homes lost but volunteers deployed Tuesday night to help feed and hydrate firefighters on scene and assist the shelter in Park Rapids as well as a shelter in Wadena.

“A crew from the Minn-Kota Region left this evening from Fargo with cots and blankets for sheltering purposes,” Shawn said in an email to The Forum.

Shortly after 9 p.m. the Moorhead Fire Department sent a call to firefighters asking for volunteers to deploy to a “statewide” incident.

Assistant Moorhead Fire Chief Jeff Wallin said a four-person crew and one fire engine were deployed to the Menahga Fire Department to help for a 12- to 24-hour shift.

Wallin said if the crew must stay longer or if fire crews are needed elsewhere in the area, firefighters from around Clay County will be organized to help.

Gov. Mark Dayton signed an emergency executive order Tuesday to help with wildfires across the state. The emergency order will assist the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center and allows for military help in fighting fires.

According to the executive order, at least 25 wildfires had broken out by Tuesday night, including a still-uncontrolled fire near Red Lake that had consumed almost 7,000 acres by Tuesday afternoon.

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 Good, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center. Fifty firefighters fought flames at Buffalo Ranch.

Northwest of Red Lake, firefighters contended with gusts of up to 40 mph.

Mike Beaulieu of the Red Lake Department of Natural Resources said both the River Road and Buffalo Ranch fires were caused by people, 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, Good 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.”

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