Karlstad, Minn., headed from a firestorm toward a snowstorm Wednesday, with a wintry blast expected to bring a damp end to a siege of wildfires that destroyed 11 homes in the city and a handful of outbuildings across northwestern Minnesota on Tuesday.
"It's raining, and that's a good thing," said Gil Knight, spokesman for the Interagency Fire Center, which monitored eight wildfires that consumed more than 56 square miles of grassland, woods and peat bogs in dry and windy conditions on Tuesday. Fire activity Wednesday was "minimal," Knight said.
Meanwhile the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) asked for the public's help Wednesday as fire danger hit a seasonal all-time high in much of the state since automated local records have been kept.
"We have a unique and dangerous combination of fires that are not yet well contained up north, and a serious fire risk in the south that will continue to challenge local emergency response resources if additional fires should start," said Tom Landwehr, DNR commissioner, in a statement.
With rain turning to snow Wednesday night, the National Weather Service predicted 10 inches and more by late Thursday across much of the northwest corner of the state, which has been beset by drought for several months. At 4 p.m. Wednesday, with the Twin Cities basking in 77-degree weather, it was 45 and raining in Karlstad as a cold front began to roll across Minnesota.
Most residents who were evacuated from parts of Karlstad on Tuesday as fire licked at the edges of town returned Wednesday. City Clerk Sue Dufault said the job Wednesday was to locate people who lost their homes or hadn't returned. Otherwise, the city's utilities were intact and operating, she said. The public school remained closed, as did the nursing home and assisted living center, where 69 residents were evacuated, mostly to centers in other communities or to the homes of relatives.
Smoke from the fires drifted across northern Minnesota Wednesday. It was not expected to reach the Twin Cities.
Jeremy Folland, Karlstad's volunteer fire department chief, said Tuesday's fires were extremely challenging because of their size and because of sudden wind-direction changes and gusts up to 40 miles per hour. When the fire was at the edge of town, embers flew over firefighters' heads and started smaller fires in town, including one that began in a pile of dry leaves under a porch. That was extinguished.
"We saved significantly more than any of us thought we could," Folland said.
A community informational meeting was scheduled for Wednesday night in Karlstad.
State Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said he wanted to know how insurance would cover losses and whether the state might provide aid. He added that the turnaround in the weather came a day too late.
"Had this come the other night, we wouldn't have gone through what we went through," he said.
Fabian added that area and state fire officials are to meet Oct. 16, in a meeting scheduled before the recent fires, to discuss responses, equipment and strategies such as preventive burning around communities.
Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646