Firefighters battle motel blaze in frigid temperaturesJust as most people were sitting around the family tree on Christmas Eve, firefighters from seven area departments were battling a blaze in subzero temperatures that lasted late into the night.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Just as most people were sitting around the family tree on Christmas Eve, firefighters from seven area departments were battling a blaze in subzero temperatures that lasted late into the night.
Personnel from the Carlton, Esko and Wrenshall fire departments were summoned by Dispatch at approximately 8:27 p.m. Monday night to a fire at the Royal Pines Motel along Highway 210, just east of Black Bear Casino Resort. The fire was reportedly discovered by the motel owners, who had already taken measures to evacuate whatever residents were there at the time.
According to Dane Johnson, acting Carlton Fire Chief, three engines, three tankers and 15 firefighters responded. When they arrived, he said approximately 75 percent of the motel’s roofline was engulfed in heavy smoke, including the office area, the owners’ living quarters and 10 of the motel’s 20 units.
“It was pretty obvious that we had our work cut out for us,” said Esko Fire Chief Jeff Juntunen.
He said flames were coming through the roof east of the motel’s office area and at first firefighters attempted to knock the fire down from the interior. It soon became apparent, however, that they would have to instead launch a defensive attack.
“An offensive attack is an attempt to control the fire,” explained Juntunen. “A defensive attack is basically when the fire controls you.”
Firefighters immediately began to cut vent holes in the roof of the structure in order to release the hot gases and fire and get water to the blaze above the motel office. After approximately 20-30 minutes, firefighters were also able to begin ventilating the far east end of the rental units, working their way toward the west, where the fire had breached the roofline in two different spots.
“The entire building had one common attic space, which allowed the fire to spread exponentially,” said Johnson, explaining it was constructed before current building codes took effect.
Johnson said six additional water tankers were summoned to the scene because there are no hydrants in that vicinity and the aerial truck used to fight the fire from the roofline has a limited water capacity for its volume of output. Water was hauled by the tankers from the Four Seasons Sports Complex in Carlton.
Crews from Blackhoof, Mahtowa, Solway and West Brevator also responded, with a total of some 30 firefighters on the scene. Johnson said the blaze was under control within one to two hours, but crews were on the scene most of the night and parts of the following day.
Johnson said the temperature was around zero when firefighters first responded to the fire but it dropped as the evening wore on, making conditions treacherous for personnel.
“It was a frozen mess and everyone was falling down,” related Johnson. “I personally lost my footing four or five times on the ice.”
Johnson credited the city of Carlton for sending a dump truck to spread sand and salt around the scene of the fire to make it safer and easier for firefighters to do their jobs. He also praised nearby Carlton Travel Center for allowing six to eight firefighters at a time to warm up in their lobby for 15-20 minutes at a time throughout the night.
Johnson reported there was a large amount of smoke and water damage done to a considerable expanse of the motel, but he said some areas remained basically untouched, including the owners’ living area and a handful of the rental units.
“I’m sure that is very important to everyone living or working there,” said Johnson.
Owner Andy Patel and his wife were parents of a recent newborn, for whom emergency responders had to go in search of formula during the time of the fire. The couple had also reportedly been putting considerable work into upgrading the motel recently, including a new roof.
“This sort of thing is always a tragedy,” said Johnson, “particularly on Christmas Eve, but this was not only the owners’ business, it was their livelihood and their home as well. No matter how you look at it, it’s sad.”
Julie Hall, the manager of the Golden Gate Motel in Scanlon, made rooms available to the eight people who were either living or staying at the Royal Pines, including the owners. Though only two of those people were reportedly being housed at Golden Gate Christmas Day, Hall said she is saving remaining rooms for any other residents of Royal Pines who may be coming back from the holiday later in the week.
Johnson said although some of the rooms at Royal Pines will likely be inhabitable soon, at this point no one is being allowed back until the State Fire Marshal completes his investigation. He said Wednesday the fire marshal is also in town investigating another local fire that destroyed a home in Brevator Township (see related story) and has not yet been able to complete his work at the motel.
“Until that time, we have to document everything and everyone that comes and goes from the area,” said Johnson, “so it’s not yet possible to allow folks to move back in.”
As of the time this issue of the Pine Journal went to press, no cause of the fire had yet been released.
“The good news,” concluded Juntunen, “is that no one got hurt.”
Hall stated she is taking donations for those who have been displaced by the fire, and for more information she can be contacted at the Golden Gate Motel, 218-879-8000.
She said financial donations are welcome, but she also has clothing sizes for all of the folks who were displaced as well as a list of other needs.
“The types of things everyone takes for granted?” she said. “Chances are they need them.”
She said they can use food, bowls, forks and knives, toiletries, “pretty much everything they need to get by on.”
Hall said while the motel’s owners, the Patels, have moved in with family members, all of the other occupants of the damaged motel are staying at the Golden Gate.
Among them are Darin and Amy Bell, who both lived and worked at the Royal Pines and managed to escape free of harm along with their dogs.
Dawn Wernake, a nurse at the Liberalis Chemical Health program in Carlton, was at work the night of the fire. She is getting married on New Year’s Eve, and many of the decorations and gifts she had purchased for the wedding party were in her room at the Royal Pines. Fortunately, hers was among the rooms that escaped significant damage, and she is looking forward to being allowed back to the room to verify just how much of it can be saved. She was also extremely grateful that one of the firefighters was able to rescue her cat the night of the fire.
Also displaced by the fire were several Sappi workers, who were away for the holidays the night of the blaze.
“One of them returned straight to work and found out about the fire after he got to the mill,” said Hall.
Hall said she wants to allow her new residents to “get settled and get some sleep and rest, and then we’ll help them figure things out from there.”