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A wall of smoke and flames in Karlstad, Minn. Photo by Mary Balzum of Warren, Minn.

UPDATE: Shock, dismay, hope in the aftermath of Karlstad fire

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KARLSTAD, Minn. -- A cool rain started falling early Wednesday afternoon, washing away a bit of anxiety and exhaustion from the fight to protect the community from a raging wildfire that that struck almost exactly 24 hours earlier.

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"The rain is beautiful," Mayor Nick Amb said as he visited with a couple of volunteer firefighters at the Karlstad Volunteer Fire Department Fire Hall. "I don't know if I ever prayed for 6 to 8 inches of snow before."

Eleven homes, including seven mobile homes, two garages and 22 other outbuildings in and around Karlstad were destroyed by the fire which swelled from 500 acres to more than 4,400 acres Tuesday afternoon, fueled by 40-mph winds.

An estimated 150 firefighters from about 16 fire departments, as well as Minnesota National Guard, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and other and other agencies, brought the fire under control before nightfall Tuesday.

"It was the epitome of a wind-driven fire," said Ron Sanow, spokesman with Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "This fire hit this town hard. But it could have been so much worse. The fire department did an astronomical job."

'Rolling flames'

The Karlstad fire, known as the County 27 Fire, is one of eight covering more than 30,000 acres in northwest Minnesota. The largest, the North Minnie fire near Fourtown, Minn., grew from about 4,000 acres to more than 20,000, according to the Minnesota Incident Command System.

The Karlstad fire, jumped U.S. Highway 59 Tuesday afternoon, crossing Kittson County Highway 9 and Minnesota Highway 11 on the west edge of town, but for the most part skirted the community.

"The head of the fire was aimed right for town," Minnesota Fire Marshal Bruce Roed said. "They basically split it. It went east a ways and then went north."

"When I came here, you could see rolling flames about 14 feet high," said Tom Bokowiec, a paramedic with Warroad (Minn.) Rescue Unit.

Volunteer firefighters concentrated their efforts on protecting homes and other property.

Recovery efforts

The Red River Chapter of the American Red Cross established an office Wednesday afternoon at the Karlstad fire hall, offering food, shelter, clothing, as well as counselors to fire victims.

Resurrection Community Church in Karlstad is serving as a drop-off center for donations of clothing, toiletries and other items, according to the Rev. Scott Wolff.

Donated goods, from food to bottled water, began rolling into the town of 800 long before any official calls for assistance were made.

"Truckloads were just showing up," said Lori Wikstrom, a volunteer relief logistics coordinator.

The mayor and fire officials briefed community members on details of the fire and mop-up efforts in a meeting Wednesday evening.

Fire department officials plan a meeting for volunteers at 7 a.m. Thursday at the Karlstad fire hall.

For more information, contact the Red Cross at (218) 773-9565, or Resurrection Community Church at (218) 436-3341.

Saving property

Alan and Jennifer Hicks nearly lost their rural home and their stable of prized registered Pintabian horses. The Hicks family was among those evacuated at about 2 p.m. Tuesday, as the fire swept across the prairie.

Believing the fire was headed away from the farmstead, they left their horses behind.

"Then the wind changed again, and all of a sudden it changed again and was moving toward our place," Jennifer Hicks said Wednesday. "So we stopped and turned around to open all the gates to let the horses out."

They got the job done just in time.

"The fire was right there," she said. "A big chunk of smoke knocked me down. It was kind of freakish. The flames were 20 or 30 feet in the air. I thought I had lost my husband, my Pintabians."

Volunteer firefighters were on the scene within moments.

After she caught her breath, she said she watched in awe as firefighters saved the property and those of her neighbors. She saw trucks from Fosston, Crookston, Warroad, Lancaster, Red Lake Falls and Duluth in Minnesota, from Drayton and Grafton in North Dakota, as well as a belly-gulper aircraft from Canada.

The fire was extinguished within a few hours, and the prized horses were herded up and returned home by 8:30 or 9 p.m.

The Hicks family moved from California to Minnesota in 2001, initially living in Caribou, Minn., before moving in 2005 to Karlstad, where Alan works for Mattracks, the local manufacturer of a rubber track wheel conversion system for vehicles.

"We're so grateful for the volunteer firefighters," Hicks said. "They protected everybody. Their first concern was to make sure everybody was safe and our property was protected."

Rural Viking

Jessica Hestekind was in class at Northland Community in Technical College, Thief River Falls, Tuesday afternoon when she learned that a wildfire was moving fast toward her rural home, located between Viking and Newfolden, Minn.

She rushed toward home, but was detoured by a roadblock, then by the voice of her father, Greg, who warned her to stay away because of downed power lines.

Instead, she stopped at the New Solum Town Hall, about a mile down the road, where community volunteers were gathering food and other items to feed and comfort evacuees and weary firefighters. She finally made it home about five hours later.

On Wednesday afternoon she surveyed her grandfather's farmyard, the barn, garage and other outbuildings leveled by fire.

It also took a deer stand that held some sentimental value to the 19-year-old student.

"I shot my first buck out of this stand, a 10-pointer," she said; she was 14 at the time.

Firefighters saved the house, as well as the homes of her uncle and her parents, with whom she lives. All are within two miles of one another.

"I just couldn't believe it," she said. "I didn't think anything like this could ever happen to us. But we're lucky. It could have been worse. We can thank the volunteers for that."

Call Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1110; or send email to kbonham@gfherald.com

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