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Prairie fire . . . Flames race across a stubble field west
of Coulee on August 21st as traffic proceeds through
the heavy smoke drifting over ND Highway 50. Wind fanned
the fire for about 3 1/2 miles before the blaze was stopped.
By Caroline Downs
When the smoke cleared August 25th, the Kenmare Fire Department had responded to six fires in five days.
“That’s more than we’ve had in a month,” said fire chief Doug Skjordal.
The largest by far was a stubble and grass fire west of Coulee the afternoon of August 21st that burned an estimated 400 acres, mostly along ND Highway 50. That fire, called in just before 2 pm, was the third of the day. Firefighters were first called out at 5 am to attend a fire along the railroad tracks about eight miles south of Kenmare and then again about noon to check a fire along the tracks immediately west of downtown Kenmare, where railroad personnel were already on the scene to equipment to douse any flames.
The fire west of Coulee started on land farmed by Lars and Emily Christensen. Lars was harvesting and happened to be at his yard dumping a truck loaded with grain when his wife called him about smoke she saw billowing up from a field.
“I couldn’t see anything at first,” he said. “I walked out by the trees, and there I could see it.”
He directed Emily to call the fire department, then got a call from a neighbor to come with his tractor and chisel plow. “Pullens brought a tractor over and Billy Johnson brought a tractor and disk,” he said. “We were trying to put it out. The wind was pushing the fire fast.”
He estimated the wind pushed the flames about three and a half miles, mostly through stubble. “I don’t think it hardly got in any crop,” he said. “Ronnie Helwig had standing flax, but that was a little too green to burn.”
The tractors cut line around the flames while firefighters worked to put out the fire, with everyone maneuvering around each other. “It was kind of chaos for a while,” Christensen said.
The fire was believed to be caused by sparks thrown from equipment cutting hay in a field adjacent to the crop land. No standing crop was burned. Two of the Christensens’ grain bags, each filled with about 8000 bushels of harvested winter wheat, were burned over.
“The plastic melted away and there was some grain burned on the bottom, but I don’t think it hurt the wheat that bad,” said Christensen. “There’s maybe a five to ten percent loss.”
He believed the flames could have been moving too quickly to ignite the wheat itself, which was doused with water by firefighters attempting to protect the bags.
“I could see the grain in a pile out there,” he said, then shrugged. “I’ll keep using the bags. I like them, and I don’t expect a fire to go through there again.”
According to Kenmare Fire Department assistant chief Nate Condit, five trucks responded to the scene, with 12 to 15 firefighters, along with the Donnybrook and Carpio fire departments and a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service firefighting crew.
High temperatures that afternoon reached into the 90s, with variable west to northwest winds that caused trouble for the firefighters. “When we started, the fire was going straight up,” Condit said. “Then the wind picked up.”
The flames ran about three and a half miles, mostly through stubble and hay fields. Condit said crews worked until about 4:30 pm to contain and put out the main fire. At that time, about half the Kenmare department returned to town with their trucks in case a fourth call should come that day.
“About six of us stayed around to put out hay bales burning along Highway 50,” Condit said. “We made sure those were out.” Those volunteers returned to Kenmare by 8 pm.
Quick response truck
catches fire in the field
No one was injured in the fire, but the Kenmare Fire Department’s 1982 quick response truck was heavily damaged by flames.
Condit, Shane Harris and Brent Mogren were riding in the quick response truck at the time. “We were trying to save the grain bags, with the fire headed toward them,” Harris said. “The flames were about 100 feet from the bags and we were trying to extinguish those before they got there.”
The truck was driving across an unburned portion of the stubble field, which apparently collected underneath the truck and ignited. No one in the vehicle realized what was happening, but firefighter Jason Bruner, driving the department’s Humvee, pulled up beside them and shouted a warning.
“Our mindset was the fire at hand,” Harris said. “We were probably on fire for a while and didn’t realize it. Nate [Condit] drove the truck into the black and disengaged the gears. The flames were about four feet high around the truck.”
Bruner stopped the Humvee and turned the foam unit on the quick response truck. “We had it out in less than a minute,” Harris said, “but if it wasn’t for that Hummer, the truck would probably still be sitting out in the field.”
The fire actually started near the inside dual tire on the driver’s side, according to Harris. He said the fire burned the electrical wiring under the truck and melted one taillight. However, the motor and transmission still worked at the time, so the three firefighters got back into the vehicle and continued driving it to work on the fire. The truck was also driven back to town.
When they returned to the Kenmare Fire Hall, they noticed most of the gas lines were burned or damaged on one of the unit’s two tanks.
Chuck Leet, Kenmare Fire Department secretary/treasurer, said ownership of that particular quick response truck is shared between the city and the Kenmare Rural Fire District. “Those are our main attack trucks for keeping fires from becoming a big deal,” he explained. “They get out fast and get to the fires first.”
Two quick response trucks are stationed at the fire hall, and both trucks are frequently used by firefighters.
As of Monday, the department’s insurance company had inspected the damaged truck, but no decisions had been made about payments to replace or repair the vehicle.
“We’re trying to buy a used one,” Skjordal said, adding that the department would like to replace the 1982 vehicle with a 2009 model costing about $70,000.
According to Skjordal, new units are listed for around $140,000, so the savings would be significant. “All donations would be appreciated!” he said.
Two calls on Thursday
On Thursday, four Kenmare Fire Department trucks and about 12 firefighters joined a unit from the Donnybrook Fire Department at the old Van Berkom farmstead about a mile south of Coulee.
Skjordal said the department was called about 2:15 pm. The fire was believed to have started in a compost and manure pile that could have been smoldering since a fire burned the outbuildings there last November. No one lived at the farmstead.
“The buildings all burned last year,” said Skjordal. “This was about a three-to-four acre fire contained to the farmstead site.”
He said the compost pile had the consistency of a fine powder about 20 inches deep. “The guys sank up to their knees when they walked out there,” he said.
The crews extinguished the fire within an hour.
The Kenmare department was called a second time Thursday after a thunderstorm rolled through the area. A report of fire west of Kenmare near land owned by Orlan Nelson came about 11:30 pm.
Skjordal said three units and eight firefighters went to the scene. “It had rained really hard for about five minutes and put the fire out before we got there,” he said.
at the Quilt Inn
Four Kenmare fire trucks and at least 10 firemen rushed to the Quilt Inn midday on Saturday when a call came in just before noon.
Quilt Inn manager Janeen Melgaard said the gusty winds that day blew over one of the outdoor cigarette receptacles near the west entrance to the building.
The motel has a non-smoking policy, but allows guests and employees to smoke outside. Apparently, at least one cigarette was still smoldering in the receptacle when the wind knocked it over.
“It burned some of the steps,” Melgaard said. “I was busy in the office and didn’t see anything.”
She said longtime motel resident Casey LeCaptain noticed the flames and alerted Melgaard, even as he tossed the remainder of a bottle of water on the fire. More water was poured on the flames, and Melgaard called the fire department.
She and her staff members also made sure all guests evacuated the building. “We pounded on doors and sounded alarms,” she said, adding that most of the motel’s guests were out for the day, but about six people heeded the warnings.
Melgaard was concerned about hotspots left by the fire. “You just don’t know where it’s burning underneath the building,” she said.
Condit echoed that concern. “By the steps, there is an air vent for the crawl space underneath,” he said. “The wind was pushing hard enough from the west that day that it pushed smoke into the air vent and the crawl space.”
He said firefighters entered the crawl space and used the department’s infrared sensor to check the area. “We didn’t find any hot spots,” Condit said.
Melgaard was grateful for LeCaptain’s observations and quick response. “It could have been bad,” she said. “He really did save the day.”