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Derek Knowles’ home barely missed the inferno that roared through his property one year ago. The tree cleanup has begun. (Sarah Smith/Park Rapids Enterprise)

After year of rebuilding, scars of wildfire remain

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PARK RAPIDS, Minn. -- "She was a hot one!" Russ Knowles said as he recalled watching a raging wildfire blow past his Wadena County home, taking his garage with it.

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Across the road, his son, Derek, had just lost 1,000 Norway pines close to his home.

It was May 14, 2013.

A new steel garage stands on the Russ Knowles property south of Park Rapids. A child's firetruck sits in Derek Knowles' front yard, silent testimony to what the area experienced.

New building is popping up all over the three counties hit by what's been labeled the Green Valley Fire.

One year ago Wednesday, the fire gobbled up 7,100 acres, caused millions of dollars in damage, destroyed 55 structures including 12 homes and wreaked havoc on Hubbard, Becker and Wadena counties.

It took days to bring it under control, a firefighting effort that involved hundreds of area and state firefighters and platoons of trucks, aerial equipment, bulldozers, earth movers and millions of gallons of water. High winds and dry conditions leveled a one-two punch to the area.

The Green Valley Fire is the area's largest in recent memory and involved a massive response and cleanup effort, which is still in progress.

While many homeowners have received insurance settlements, some still wait for money and the energy to rebuild, replant and replenish.

'It was toast'

Jim Carlson and his wife now live in a rented home in Menahga.

Before the fire claimed their home on Blueberry Pines Golf Club's No. 8 fairway, they grabbed a few photos and car titles, thinking that when the flames passed by a half-mile away, they'd return home.

The golf pro and his wife never made it back. Their home and all of their possessions went up in flames that night.

"Pretty much everything" went, Jim Carlson said this week.

The shock of the fire was offset by the outpouring of community support, with club members, friends and strangers coming to their aid.

"It was fantastic," Carlson recalls. "It made it a much, much easier process."

Four holes on the 18-hole course were scorched extensively, and Carlson is waiting anxiously through this season to see if many will survive.

Bark beetles prey on stressed trees, so Carlson is hoping for a fairly wet summer to bring the course's trees back to health.

An empty lot with lumber and sliced trees piled high is where the home used to be.

"A half-hour after we left it was toast," Carlson said of his home.

Heirlooms, photos, furniture, the memorabilia poster board his sister made of all his accomplishments in Milnor, N.D., were gone.

"I can always remember it, I just can't look back on it," Carlson said of his memories.

Some of those four holes on the golf course play a bit differently. There's lots more open space.

New trees and seedlings are budding out on the north and west sides of the course -- new life amid the disaster. Deep fairway ruts from heavy equipment that was deployed to douse flames have been repaired.

"We're moving on, moving up, looking toward the future," Carlson said.

His house won't be rebuilt.

Need for caution

"Undetermined" is how Mark Carlstrom, area forestry chief for the state Department of Natural Resources, describes the cause of the inferno.

"It's undetermined until something new comes out or somebody admits it," Carlstrom said.

And even though this spring the region has been blessed with more rainfall, Carlstrom said the fire danger is hitting its crescendo.

"It's the most flammable time of the year," he said Monday. "Yesterday we had a grass fire" during intermittent rains, he said.

"Pine foliage has the lowest moisture content when the needles are elongating," he said, underscoring the need to be cautious this time of year.

Huge tree piles adorn most fields and many yards. It is obvious it was a busy winter for many property owners affected.

A burn ban prevents Russ and Derek Knowles from burning the tree piles in their yard, neatly plucked from their roots and stacked in rows.

They, along with many locals, claim to know who was responsible for the blaze, but won't reveal it.

Carlstrom said it cost $1 million in fire suppression. The buildings lost amounted to $2 million.

"We all think our assessed valuation is too high, then we try to rebuild and it's too low," he said.

But the Green Valley Fire claimed no lives and caused no physical injuries.

Russ and Derek Knowles are working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency office in Park Rapids to purchase replacement trees. Planting won't take place until next year.

"It roared right through here," Russ Knowles said, shaking his head at the memory.

"Across over there that whole plantation burned," he said of a now deceased neighbor's tree farm across the road near the Hubbard-Wadena County border.

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