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A fire started Tuesday afternoon south of Park Rapids near U.S. Highway 71 . Structures were lost in the fire, and the town of Menahga was evacuated. (Jean Ruzicka / Park Rapids Enterprise)

Fire in Park Rapids area burns structures, forces evacuations

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By Wendy Reuer

Forum News Service

PARK RAPIDS, Minn. -- As the Rev. Jim Neubauer stood outside St. John’s Lutheran Church here, he watched the raging wildfire billow smoke into the air, looking for slight changes in the smoke’s color.

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A deputy told him the shifting colors were a sign of the fire’s damage.

“He said the sad thing is when you see the smoke color change, it’s probably another house (burning),” Neubauer said. “You could see the smoke change every once in a while.”

Officials reported that structures had been lost in the 10-mile-wide blaze that began Tuesday afternoon, scorching about 1,200 acres as of Tuesday evening, but details about the structures were not released.

Around 9 p.m., officials with the state Department of Natural Resources asked the entire town of Menahga to evacuate and head south to Sebeka. The Green Pine Acres, a nursing home in Menahga, was also evacuated. The DNR was offering air support as wind gusts of more than 30 mph were reported.

St. John’s Lutheran Church in Park Rapids also opened its doors to evacuees, but no one had arrived by 10 p.m., Neubauer said.

“A lot of people here either have family or close friends they can stay with,” he said.

Neubauer said the church was cut off from receiving Menahga evacuees since Highway 71 was closed to southbound traffic at the four-mile corner, Highway 87, south of Park Rapids.

Neubauer said he’s continually taken phone calls from people around the area asking how they could help.

Dispatchers for the Becker County Sheriff’s Office said fire crews from at least eight county agencies had deployed to the Park Rapids area Tuesday night.

Brian Shawn, director of the Minn-Kota Region American Red Cross in Fargo, said his organization had received no reports of homes lost but volunteers deployed Tuesday night to help feed and hydrate more than 200 firefighters on scene.

“A crew from the Minn-Kota Region left this evening from Fargo with cots and blankets for sheltering purposes,” Shawn said in an email.

Shortly after 9 p.m., the Moorhead Fire Department sent a call to firefighters asking for volunteers to deploy to a “statewide” incident.

Assistant Moorhead Fire Chief Jeff Wallin said a four-person crew and one fire engine were deployed to the Menahga Fire Department to help for a 12- to 24-hour shift.

Wallin said if the crew must stay longer or if fire crews are needed elsewhere in the state, fire crews from around Clay County will be organized to help.

Gov. Mark Dayton signed an en emergency executive order Tuesday to help with wildfires that were active across the state. The emergency order will assist the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center and allows for military help in fighting fires.

According to the executive order, at least 25 wildfires had broken out by Tuesday night, including a still-uncontrolled fire near Red Lake, Minn., which had consumed almost 7,000 acres by Tuesday afternoon.

The River Road fire spread in grass marshes about 20 miles northwest of Red Lake, and was being fought by 15 firefighters. Its sister blaze, the Buffalo Ranch fire, had burned 4,900 acres by Tuesday afternoon, according to Jean Good, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center. Fifty firefighters fought flames at Buffalo Ranch.

Northwest of Red Lake, firefighters contended with gusts of up to 40 mph.

Mike Beaulieu of the Red Lake Department of Natural Resources said both the River Road and Buffalo Ranch fires were caused by people, but both remained under investigation.

“I used to pray for snow, but now I pray for rain, or for people to be more careful,” Beaulieu said.

With most of Minnesota under a red flag warning, issued when “critical fire conditions are expected,” according to the National Weather Service, Good also stressed caution.

“We’re really urging people that, if they have a campfire, that they keep it small,” she said. “Keep a water source handy. And make sure (the fire) is completely out before leaving.”

Reporters Justin Glawe and Anna Erickson contributed to this

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