Dozens of firefighters on the ground and water-toting helicopters in the sky battled a fast-moving wildfire Saturday just 10 miles north of downtown Duluth.
In a scene not unheard of in the Northland - but not often seen so close to the Twin Ports - crews evacuated residents and raced to protect homes from the advancing flames, which authorities said apparently were sparked by a burn barrel that got out of control on the warm, sunny, breezy day.
The fire which charred about five acres near the corner of Howard Gnesen and Lismore roads, on the Rice Lake-Gnesen town line, didn’t destroy any homes and no injuries were reported. But it did burn two outbuildings on the property of Cliff and Mary Lou Solem, 5893 Howard Gnesen Rd.
Crews were kept busy with other fires in the Northland, too, including one near Hibbing late Saturday afternoon that required firefighting aircraft.
The fire near Duluth apparently started at about 1:45 p.m. on land adjacent to the Solems’ property, authorities said. A preliminary investigation showed that a neighboring homeowner was burning cardboard in a burn barrel and the fire spread, the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office reported. The fire then quickly spread to the north along the west side of Howard Gnesen Road. Embers ignited a secondary fire on the northeast corner of Howard Gnesen and Lismore roads, but fire crews quickly knocked it down as nearby homes were evacuated as a precaution.
“It’s so hot and dry out right now, it’s jumping,” St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Todd Abernethy said at the scene. Temperatures at the time of the fire were in the mid-60s with southwest winds gusting to near 25 mph; most of the region is experiencing drought conditions this spring.
Mary Lou Solem said she and her husband were at home when her husband - watching a western show on TV - noticed smoke outside.
“He said to me, ‘Is there a fire out there someplace?’” she said. “I went to the kitchen window and saw (the fire spreading) and called 911.”
Soon her nephew and first responders were knocking at the door as flames neared the home. A first responder “grabbed my arm and said, ‘where are your purse and car keys?,’ ” she said. “I went to get my stuff” and then she and her husband went to a relative’s house down the road, returning to the scene a short while later to watch as crews worked to save their home, the garage housing the family business - Cliff Solem & Sons Sheet Metal & Heating - and a grandson’s home next door. The fire got within 20 to 30 feet of the Solems’ home, Mary Lou Solem said, but the building was saved.
Two outbuildings and an RV camper were lost, however, before crews on the ground and water-dropping helicopters in the air could protect them. One of the structures that may have burned - there was some uncertainty as smoke still filled the air - was the former Rice Lake Town Hall, moved there after the existing town hall was built years ago.
“A lot of stuff is lost,” Mary Lou Solem said.
Smoke from the fire could be seen for miles. Authorities limited traffic in the area as numerous fire trucks and tankers traveled to and from the scene.
Members of the Solems’ extended family live along that stretch of Howard Gnesen Road; the Solems’ nephew Bobby Abrahamson and his wife, Nicole, live not far down the road. Bobby Abrahamson said he smelled smoke at his house and “knew it wasn’t right.” He ran to help his aunt and uncle evacuate their home.
At the Abrahamson home, Nicole began grabbing keepsakes such as photo albums to bring outside with her. The flames were nearing their house and Nicole said she feared the wind would cause the house to catch fire.
“We prayed and the wind switched,” she said. When asked what went through her mind, she said, “you think about what to grab.”
Michelle Bergum, a neighbor on the other side of Howard Gnesen Road, said she was nervous the fire was going to spread onto her property. Although first responders told her they would knock on her door if she needed to leave her home, she was out on the road to see if her home was in danger. It was unsettling to see a wildfire so close to home.
“This is a reality check,” she said.
At least 11 fire departments responded to the fire - Rice Lake, Gnesen, Canosia, Lakewood, Normanna, Fredenberg, the Air National Guard, Grand Lake, Hermantown, Solway and Clifton - along with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Gold Cross Ambulance, the sheriff’s office and the St. Louis County Rescue Squad. Crews remained on the scene for several hours to watch for flare-ups and mop up what had burned; the last crew had left the scene by 7 p.m.
Elsewhere in the Northland on Saturday, a fire burned about 200 acres of mostly swampland and timber a few miles south of the Range Regional Airport near Hibbing, said Tom Fasteland, Minnesota Interagency Fire Center coordinator in Grand Rapids. About 50 to 60 firefighters worked that fire with support from air tankers; crews had to take steps to protect some structures but no buildings were lost.
Another fire near Birchdale in Koochiching County claimed an old homestead building, Fasteland said, and aerial support was required for a fire near Askov.
There were numerous fires elsewhere in the state, too, Fasteland said, as the continued drought and gusty winds created conditions favorable for fires to spread.
There is a chance for showers and thunderstorms across the Northland today and tonight, but dry, breezy conditions - and heightened fire danger - are expected on Monday, the National Weather Service reported.
Burning permits aren't being issued in much of the Northland at this time because of the fire risk. Where fire permits are being granted -- and where campfires are allowed -- authorities urge people to use extreme caution.
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