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FIRE AND ICE! House fires, black ice take disastrous toll

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news Cloquet, 55720
Cloquet Minnesota 122 Avenue C 55720

Frigid temperatures did more than cancel schools and stall cars over the past week. A number of mostly weather-related incidents kept emergency response workers busy and sent at least four people to area hospitals.

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Fire breaks out as homeowner thaws pipes

One minute the owner of a Brevator Township home was dealing with frozen pipes and the next, he had a full-blown fire on his hands. 

Crews from eight area fire departments were called to the home, located in the 8100 block of Highway 2, around 3:50 p.m. Monday after the homeowner safely fled to the home of family members next door and called 911. At the time the East Brevator Volunteer Fire Department arrived on the scene, the home was already in grave danger.

“It was fully engulfed in flames,” said East Brevator Chief Ray Rissanen, who lives not far from the burning home. 

Rissanen said an elderly gentleman lived in the home alone and reported he had been trying to thaw a frozen pipe with the type of hot air gun used for stripping paint.

“Those things pull a lot of electricity and get really hot,” said Rissanen. “The house was built in the early 1900s, and it’s possible the fire may have been caused not so much by the hot air but because it drew more electricity than the system in that house could handle.”

The exact cause of the blaze remains under investigation, however.

Gerald Pickus, chief of the Culver Volunteer Fire Department and assistant chief of the West Brevator Department, said little could be done to save the house by the time his departments responded to provide mutual aid, except to “try to put out the flames as fast as we could.”

Even that was not easy task. Because there are no fire hydrants in that rural area, firefighters had to drive tanker trucks to the nearby St. Louis River to replenish their water supply.

“The ice on the river was three feet thick,” related Rissanen. “Our men had to cut through it with axes and chisels.”

Pickus said the departments would run their lines down the embankment to the river, fill up their tankers with water and head back to the fire before returning to the river on another run. In all, Rissanen estimated they utilized some 50,000-60,000 gallons of water to dampen the blaze. 

The St. Louis County Sheriff’s Department provided traffic control during the incident, stopping traffic along Highway 2 several times to make way for the tanker trucks to make their runs to and from the St. Louis River.

Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by firefighters was the weather, which lingered around 22 degrees below zero before dropping still further after nightfall. 

“Our trucks kept freezing up,” said Pickus. “As soon as we stopped spraying water with the hoses, the pumps would freeze up and we’d have to thaw them out again.”

In fact, one of the trucks from the Solway Volunteer Fire Department froze up entirely and had to return to the station.

No weather-related injuries were sustained by the firefighters, though Rissanen said one complained of possible frostbite on the tip of his ear.

“For the most part, we were able to stay warm,” related Pickus. “We kept the rescue truck running the whole time so we could take turns warming up, and the crew from the Industrial Township Department provided food and hot chocolate.”

Rissanen said the last of his crew departed the fire scene around 11 p.m., but he said they were called back seven times on Tuesday as flames reignited.

“We knocked much of what remained of the structure down with a front end loader,” said Rissanen, “but there was just so much stuff under the walls that it continued to flare up every time the wind blew through there.”

Rissanen said the homeowner is currently staying nearby at the home of a relative, and it is unknown if any type of fund has yet been set up for his benefit.

Also responding to the fire were the Arrowhead, Grand Lake and Hermantown fire departments, as well as the Fond du Lac Police and Lake Country Power.

Unattended kitchen fire causes extensive damages

A seemingly innocuous kitchen fire ended up causing tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of damage on Saturday. According to Kevin Schroeder, chief of the Cloquet Area Fire District (CAFD), firefighters were called to the fire in the 4500 block of Twin Lakes Road at approximately 12:50 p.m. Jan. 4. Upon arrival, they found the structure involved in smoke and flames, and they had to open up several walls and the ceiling in order to get to the blaze.

Schroeder explained that an occupant of the home had been cooking on the stove and left the kitchen for a period of time. Upon return, the occupant discovered flames on top of the stove that had already spread to adjacent cabinets. The occupant told fire investigators that it’s likely some sort of flammable material close to the stove caught on fire and caused the blaze. 

The home’s occupant then threw water on the fire and thought the blaze had been extinguished. Sometime later, however, the resident smelled smoke, spotted what appeared to be glowing embers coming out of the walls and called 911.

“This sort of thing happens a lot,” said Schroeder. “In fact, stovetop fires are the number one cause of house fires in Minnesota. The fire from the stove gets into the overhead space, particularly if there’s a cheaper vent hood or microwave, which carries the blaze into the wall cavities and vent system and behind cabinets, walls and ceiling.”

Schroeder said that was the case with Saturday’s fire, which he said ended up causing substantial damage, burning not only through the cabinets and walls but through some of the roof trusses as well. 

Unattended cooking fires account for 49 percent of all fires nationwide, according to Schroeder.

“It’s important to pay attention while cooking and to always call 911 if a fire is suspected or present, even when you think you have it out.”

Also responding to the blaze were the West Brevator, Culver and Arrowhead fire departments.

Chimney fire poses threat to home north of Cloquet

The CAFD responded to a stubborn chimney fire in the 300 block of Prevost Road at approximately 1:17 a.m. on Dec. 29. Schroeder said crews were able to keep the fire contained within the chimney, but lack of routine maintenance had left the chimney plugged so it took a significant amount of time to put the fire out.

“It kept CAFD firefighters working in minus-20-degree temperatures for almost two hours due to the condition of the chimney and buildup of materials in the flue,” said Schroeder.

Though firefighters managed to avoid frostbite or hypothermia, the cold did threaten to take its toll on the hydraulics of the company’s ladder truck.

“We had a little trouble getting the ladder back down,” admitted Schroeder. “Fortunately the hydraulics loosened up a little bit and we got it down without having to take any further measures. There’s just no good way to fight fires in this weather.”

Black ice leads to accidents on freeway

Schroeder added the CAFD has responded to a handful of other weather-related incidents in recent days as well. The buildup of black ice on Interstate 35 over the past week led to multiple vehicle accidents. Black ice is caused by the condensation of car exhaust or other moisture on the surface of the highway. It can be especially treacherous because it is difficult, and sometimes impossible, to detect, since it isn’t actually black but transparent. 

The CAFD responded to an early morning motor vehicle collision on I-35 at approximately 6:10 a.m. on Dec. 28. A minivan was rear-ended by another vehicle and ended up rolling into the median on I-35. The van’s two occupants had to be extricated through the front windshield and were transported to Community Memorial Hospital. There is no word on their condition at this time.

On Dec. 30, the department was called to a rollover accident on I-35 near the Highway 45 bridge. Due to black ice on the roadway at the time, a pickup truck hauling a snowmobile trailer southbound on I-35 skidded off the interstate and rolled into the ditch. The CAFD transported two occupants of the vehicle to the hospital, though both had only minor injuries. Multiple tow trucks were enlisted to remove the vehicle and trailer from the ditch.

Around the same time, a vehicle in the northbound lanes of I-35 went into a skid and dumped an ice house being towed behind it on its side in the middle of the interstate. 

“Because of the weather or for whatever reason, we’ve had a tremendous number of car accidents lately,” Schroeder attested.

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