Cloquet firefighter lends expertise to battling mill fire at SartellKen Klatt, division chief for the Cloquet Area Fire District, had just finished up a shift on May 31 when a call came in from the state Fire Chiefs Assistance and Support Team, asking for emergency backup in battling the blaze at the Verso Paper Mill in Sartell, Minn.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Ken Klatt, division chief for the Cloquet Area Fire District, had just finished up a shift on May 31 when a call came in from the state Fire Chiefs Assistance and Support Team, asking for emergency backup in battling the blaze at the Verso Paper Mill in Sartell, Minn.
The fire broke out on Memorial Day after an air compressor failed and ruptured, resulting in one fatality and serious injuries to four others.
Klatt immediately hit the road and arrived in Sartell in time to put in a 12-hour overnight shift at the site of the blaze in the 100-year-old paper company’s warehouse. Klatt served as incident safety officer in command of the overall safety of the crews fighting the fire and subsidiary activities.
“When you’re involved at a plant that big, it really magnifies things because there are more areas to watch,” commented Klatt this week. “It was a very tense and busy position I was in.”
Klatt was up to the task, however. Not only did he have experience responding to calls to Carlton County’s own Sappi paper mill, but he had past experience during his time with the Maple Grove Fire Department battling a blaze at a local plastics company for several days, as well as responding to a tornado strike that involved a month-long mop-up effort.
The Sartell fire burned for over a week and required some 70 of the state’s fire departments to help provide 24-hour operations during that period of time.
Klatt was part of a four-man, chief-level command and safety team that worked from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. After meeting to map out their strategy, each was issued an ATV to cover their respective areas and make certain everything was under control since the Verso plant is so massive. Klatt met with each of the seven departments that were taking part in that shift’s fire suppression efforts to discuss tasks, explain the “Mayday” emergency notification process and appoint a unit safety officer in each of them. He then checked back every 15 minutes or so throughout the night to make certain everything was going smoothly.
As a result of the initial explosion, Klatt said, the roof of the warehouse had collapsed on the hundreds of rolls of finished paper stored in the warehouse.
“As they got wet, they got heavy and tended to bend and fall over, making them difficult to remove,” related Klatt.
He said crews needed to use an excavator to get out the rolls one at a time – as all the while the fire continued to burn up under the roof – and each time the roof moved even the slightest bit, he had to meet with a structural engineer before the next move could be made in order to re-evaluate how they were attacking the task and what needed to be done to ensure the safety of the personnel involved.
Klatt said the Verso mill is similar to Cloquet’s Sappi mill in many ways, except the two adjacent railroad tracks at Verso are located much closer to the mill’s warehouse.
“Some 60-70 trains use those tracks in a day’s time,” said Klatt, “so I had to have a representative from BNSF next to me at all times to remain in contact with those trains to make certain they had a safe passage through the fire area.”
Klatt also met periodically with all of the firefighting personnel to make certain they were “rehabbed” on a regular basis so they were fed, rehydrated, rested and had their blood pressure taken before returning to their tasks.
Klatt said his experience at the Verso fire in Sartell was both eye-opening and rewarding.
“At the end of the day, all of our firefighters came out safe,” he concluded.