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Community event Tuesday to help Atwater, Minn., remember fire

ATWATER -- If you live in Atwater, it's hard to forget the vicious fire that roared down Atlantic Avenue a year ago.

Intentionally set by an arsonist who remains at large, the Feb. 28 fire destroyed three buildings and four businesses, including a supper club and the town's only hardware store.The fire left a large, gaping hole in the in the heart of the small town.

"It's been a tough year for Atwater," conceded Atwater Mayor Mark Olson. "But it's not going to break this community. There are a lot of good people here."

On Tuesday night the community will gather to remember the fire and give thanks to those who responded to the town's call for help a year ago.

In an event dubbed "Appreciation to you," community residents, arson investigators, local law enforcement and representatives from the nine fire departments that fought the blaze for hours in below-zero temperatures are being invited to gather together

The low-key event, with coffee and cookies, will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. at the community center, which is across the street from the fire site.

There won't be a formal program but people will be invited to make statements and voice their sentiments, said Olson, recalling the phone call he received shortly after midnight on Feb. 28, 2011 that brought him face-to-face with the rapidly spreading fire.

The horror of that site and the realization that the town was about to lose a significant part of its business community was met with simultaneous appreciation he had for the fire crews that fought the fire, said Olson, adding that he's glad the community is gathering together on the year anniversary of the fire.

The event will also be an opportunity to remind people that the arson investigation is still underway.

"It's still an active investigation," said Robert Schmidt, special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who is overseeing the investigation.

"There are some leads that we're following up on," said Schmidt, adding that arson cases are "laborious" and time-consuming for investigators and frustrating for the victims - in the case the entire Atwater community.

Any information, even tidbits that may seem insignificant, could be the crucial missing piece to the puzzle that solves the crime.

"A lot of times these cases are solved by the public," said Schmidt.

A $5,000 reward is still being offered for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the fire.

Olson said knowing the fire was intentionally set is "really hard to handle for all of us," especially since the town could ill-afford to lose any of its small business base.

"I hope that comes to a conclusion at some point so we find out who did it," said Olson, pledging that the town will not forget the crime to the community.

"The sooner the better, but as long as it's resolved at some point in time that would be great."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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