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Willmar Notebook: Fire on the range

Photo provided by Sally Wanner Firefighter Mark Wanner fells a ponderosa pine to create a fire break in Rosebud County, Montana, this summer.

Mark Wanner (WHS '78) lives in cowboy country but he has been on a horse only once (in a parade) since settling in Montana 30 years ago.

But he does ride the range. He drives a specially outfitted fire truck to raging summer fires in the grasslands and foothills around Forsyth, where he teaches school the other nine months of the year. He's also coached several sports and is a former dean of students.

Hour wise, the on-call firefighter has accumulated four 40-hour weeks on the job since June 22.

"We had no fires the previous two years," he told me by phone during a three-day lull this week. "This year it's been dry, low humidity and 30 to 40 mile-per-hour winds."

Forsyth, about the size of Paynesville in population, is on the Yellowstone River. Emotionally more than physically, the town is connected to Mark's home town by U.S. Highway 12 which breaks away to the northwest after losing its independence when it merges with U.S. 94 at Miles City 50 miles east.

Mark has lived in Forsyth since 1982 after graduating from Concordia in Moorhead. He played on the Cobbers' 1981 national championship football team. He played Cardinal football on Bill Hansen's last team and scored the final touchdown on old Hodapp Field, a 7-6 victory over Alexandria. The next fall, under new coach Deryl Ramey, the Cards debuted at the new stadium.

Mark has been a Forsyth volunteer fireman for 22 years. He's a certified engine boss. A lot of his summer hours are spent just getting to the outbreaks in huge Rosebud County, which borders Custer National Forest and the Little Big Horn to the south.

"It's a combination of ranch country to the north and foothills, cuts and coulees to the south, really rugged, beautiful country," he said.

The Montana fires have been hellacious but are overshadowed in the media by the fires in the Colorado foothills which involve structures.

The range fires are fueled by dead grass from 2011 when moisture was more than ample, the present drought and 100-degree heat. While the ponderosa pines may look a healthy green, Mark said, they are actually so dry internally that when flames touch their boughs they are consumed like a torch dipped in kerosene.

Trailers with 4,000 gallon water tanks, called tenders, are strategically stationed about the counties. The flatbed crew cab pickups with small water tanks bounce their way to the fire lines.

"500 gallons doesn't go very far," said Mark.

Bulldozers, back burns and tree cutting are used to created firebreaks. For bigger wildfires the bombers come in spreading a cloud of slurry. Helicopters drop baskets of rancid water.

In one siege, he spent four nights sleeping on a tanker. "You don't sleep on the ground because of snakes," he cautioned.

Thompson an ace

Jamie Thompson will be missed by this sports department. He was ever helpful, informative and always on the ball.

Coming from the area, the former Dawson-Boyd Blackjack understood that the sports department of a daily can't do its job without the timely cooperation of coaches and athletic directors.

More than once, it occurred to me that his is not any easy job. The hours seemed quite worse than a sportswriter; not only did he have to be around the various venues in the evenings but he was on the job for the morning and afternoon shifts, too.

It seems to me it's no position for a family man with a youngster in the household. And he has a 5-year-old.

Not that I remember him complaining. We're glad he's staying in the district, but a more cordial and hard-working administrator will be hard to find.

Back to North Dakota

While on the subjects of the west and education, I'm reminded that long-time educator/coach Ed Otto and his wife, Doty, have moved to Grafton, N.D. Unlike Sid, I claim few close personal friends, but Ed would be one.

Ed and Doty moved to Willmar in 1970 from Pipestone where Ed coached basketball for 13 years after beginning his career in North Dakota. He came here as an assistant principal and soon after arriving encouraged the district to hire Cliff Schlosser, also at Pipestone, as the new high school principal.

Ed taught American history most of his 37-year career, which he followed up with 12 years as a sub, often in physical education classes at the high school. He was head coach of the baseball team 1975-77. He expressed admiration for has assistant coach, Jon Horning, those years.

The Army and National Guard veteran turned 86 in June. He and Doty have been married going on 64 years. They have a daughter in Grafton.

Only the Yankees rivaled the Cardinals for Coach Otto's affection. And he liked the newspapers; he tells me he already is getting the Grand Forks Herald delivered to their apartment, in addition to this paper.

He's back in eastern N.D., not far from where he grew up on a farm near the village of Amenia. He starred there in basketball and later at UND. A Forum sportswriter named him one of the top five athletes in the state's first half-century.

"We loved Willmar; we lived here 42 years," he said during a visit just before leaving July 6.

And on the phone last week, he said with that unforgettable laugh of his: "I never dreamed I'd be back in North Dakota where I coaches 60 years ago. There are some people who still remember my teams."

A sad end

The startling news that former Cardinal athlete Brian Hedglin, 40, had stolen a 50-seat passenger jet, crashed it on the tarmac and then taken his life at the municipal airport in St. George, Utah, early Tuesday morning seemed unbelievable.

Police tied him to the homicide of his former girlfriend, Cristina Cornejo, 39, on July 13 in Colorado Springs, where both lived. Hedglin, who went to the University of North Dakota after graduating here in 1990, had been a pilot since 2005 for SkyWest Airlines, which owned the plane that Hedglin broke into.

In high school, Hedglin earned three letters each in cross country and track and field. His brother Scott, younger by two years, was also a successful distance runner. Brian was a leader, too, elected president of his class. He did not file a biography on the class website for the 20-year reunion.

"It just shocked me," said his high school running coach Gayne Stone on hearing what was briefly national news on Wednesday. "He was a good team person; he supported everyone and it was fun to have him on the team."

Stone, who also coached boys swimming, recalls that although the Hedglin brothers were not on the swim team, they used their creative talents to make T-shirts for team members.

ABC 4 in Salt Lake City reported "Hedglin had recently become troubled from a relationship that went sour. He went from trusted pilot, and soldier with the Colorado National Guard to a wanted murder suspect all within a matter of months.

Brian Hedglin had become a man running from the law, but according to court records that wasn't his life. In fact a woman who lived near Hedglin, in Colorado Springs, but did not want to be identified, said he was a pleasant person.''

It appears he drove a black motorcycle from Colorado Springs to St. George where he scaled a high fence to get on the airport grounds. Though his company access card had been suspended, he managed to enter the parked airliner.

The Spectrum newspaper in St. George reported Friday that "The estimated cost to repair the south wall at the St. George Municipal Airport is about $62,000 following the Tuesday incident in which a Colorado murder suspect drove a SkyWest Airlines plane into the airport parking lot, damaging a jet bridge, scratching the side of the terminal and hitting patrons' vehicles."

The Hedglins had moved from Willmar some time ago.

Grove City camp

Spencer Lund's third annual West Central Wrestling Camp at Grove City continues its prestigious lineup of clinicians each Monday with Concordia College All-Americas Nate Schmitz and Ben Presler followed by Micah Larson of Southwest State and Ridgewater College two-time All-America Travis Peralta on July 30. The evening camp concludes Aug. 6 with Ridgewater coach Tom Beyer, national qualifier Klinton VanHeuveln and incoming Ridgewater freshman Hayden Rouser from Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City.

Superior swim

Former Cardinal swimmer Landon Ascheman, now of St. Paul, is preparing for a 2.1 mile swim across a bay in Lake Superior at Bayfield, Wis. The Aug. 4 race is a fundraiser for the Bayfield Area. On Monday morning, Ascheman did a training swim at Green Lake swimming from County Park 5 in the Northeast corner diagonally to Saulsbury Beach.

He covered the 4.22 miles in 3 hours, 30 minutes. His parents Gary and Sheila were in a boat for safety and helped guide. A friend Mara Koeller, also of St. Paul and preparing for the Superior swim, retired to the boat about 600 yards short of the beach. Competitors are encouraged to wear a full-body wet suit for the cold-water swim.

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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