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Fires get away despite low risk category

Just 24 hours after the area received a quarter-inch of rain, two grass fires April 28 quickly spread because of continued tinder conditions.

5/05/15 (Tue)

Grass fire... Using a balaclava over his head and face to shield his lungs from thick smoke, Scot Ness douses a grass fire on the edge of the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge April 28. The Kenmare Fire Department had 12 firefighters on scene for 90 minutes until a unit from the refuge relieved the Kenmare department.

By Marvin Baker

Just 24 hours after the area received a quarter-inch of rain, two grass fires April 28 quickly spread because of continued tinder conditions.

The rain dropped the fire index from moderate to low, but dead grass from 2014 easily ignited prompting dispatch from Kenmare, Berthold, Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge and Bowbells departments.

The first fire was reported about noon Tuesday after Greg Matte was burning trash in a burn pit near his farm northwest of Kenmare when embers apparently were blown adrift northward a couple of hundred feet landing on refuge property and catching fire.

Matte’s son Michael said the area around the burn pit is all black dirt and he was surprised the grass caught fire from that distance.

But refuge manager Chad Zorn said canola stubble adjacent to the burn pit may have aided the fire’s movement.

Departments from Kenmare and the refuge battled the blaze that scorched 67 acres of grassland and a few shrubs, 49 acres of refuge property.

Twelve firefighters from the Kenmare department fought the blaze for about 90 minutes, according to fire chief Nate Condit.

He said the rain may have dropped the fire index, but that’s not necessarily a good gauge of the actual conditions.

“It took off into the grass on the refuge,” Condit said. “Everything is so dry.”

 The fire started on the plateau out of the valley about four miles south of the Des Lacs Lake crossing on U.S. Highway 52. It quickly moved northeast and while Kenmare firefighters doused the flames, the fire began moving into the valley and toward the lake.

“It went over the hill and down to the lake,” Condit said. “The wind was in our favor.”

According to Zorn, after the Kenmare department was relieved, the refuge crew remained on site for several hours to make sure a flare up didn’t occur.

As the fire moved into the valley, Zorn said the refuge department has equipment that easily navigated the grassland to assist the Kenmare department where its trucks weren’t able to travel.

Zorn said the fire was accidental and the Mattes won’t be held accountable for what happened.

“There were no structures or fences that were damaged and nobody was injured,” Zorn said. “So no, there won’t be any ramifications.”

The second fire began about 4:30 p.m., on a farmstead four miles north of Berthold.

“It was a control burn that got away,” said Berthold fire chief Richard Blahut. “It started the edge of the yard on fire and was threatening the barn and some out buildings. We got that knocked down right away.”

As that was happening, a light wind shifted to a westerly direction and the fire began moving toward an adjacent coulee.

“That’s when I asked for help from the Carpio department,” Blahut said. “If the wind would have been out of the south, it would have been a bigger incident. The wind was in our favor.”

Blahut said four firefighters from Berthold fought the blaze along with two neighbors volunteering to assist in moving fences so trucks could get through. He said one, perhaps two Ward County deputies were also involved for a time.

Carpio fire chief Kalvin Myers sent four people and two trucks as back up.

According to Blahut, about 20 acres burned and his department was there for about 2 1/2 hours until it was safe to return to the station.

“Conditions are so dry out there,” Blahut said. “That rainfall made people happy, but it didn’t change things whatsoever. Sunshine will only enhance that condition.”

Blahut said it’s important to remember that under a moderate fire index, control burns are allowed, however, the person burning has to seek permission from the local fire jurisdiction and that person must be on site watching the fire.

He said there are a lot of control burns on area farms and for the most part, farmers do a good job of controlling the fires and making sure they’re out before leaving the area. But sometimes people get in a hurry and just go ahead and start their crop residue on fire.

He said the permission granted is the biggest part of issuing a control burn because even with a lower fire index, Tuesday was a good example of how a fire can quickly get away from somebody.

“My concern is the remainder of this week,” Blahut said. “Somebody throws a cigarette out a window, a piece of glass in a ditch heats up the grass and it catches fire; you know, those freak things that can happen.” ... Read EVERY WORD on EVERY PAGE of The Kenmare News by subscribing--online or in print!