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Ryan Bakken, Forum News Service, Published September 28 2013

A year after fire, rebuilding continues in Karlstad

KARLSTAD, Minn. – A hole in the ground where once stood a fine home is the most obvious sign of the fire that disrupted the lives of Kathy and Keith Britten and several other families a year ago.

The fire consumed the home they had built 22 years ago with the help of family and friends, and left its mark in other ways.

The scrub oak trees are charred, missing almost all of their bark. They survived, though, and some produced a lot of leaves this year while others struggled to leaf out at all.

The trees’ condition made for a good-natured argument between the spouses. Keith made a pitch to salvage every tree with a leaf. Kathy countered that all of them should fall to a bulldozer.

However, they’re in agreement about rebuilding on the site, 1.5 miles south of town.

“We’ve put too much work into our yard, our garden and our trees to give it up,” Kathy said. “And, we like living in the country.”

They expect to complete plans soon, get the structure enclosed before winter and move in during early spring. They admit that they were slow to get going, partly because of the trauma of the fire.

“It was a long, slow process,” Kathy said. “For at least a half-year, I had no desire to shop for anything.”

Another reason to rebuild is the swamp just beyond their backyard. The swamp provides them scenery, nature-watching and hunting grounds.

On Oct. 2, 2012, the swamp also provided fuel for the fire, which burned 4,800 acres, destroyed four homes and damaged 11 others. When a wind of about 50 mph suddenly switched directions toward the swamp and the Brittens’ home, there was little time to react.

To prevent a reoccurrence, Keith said he will carve out a 30-foot-wide firebreak with heavy equipment between their rebuilt home and the swamp, for days such as Oct. 2, 2012, and Thursday, when winds were gusting to 30 mph across the again-dry landscape.

“I often catch myself looking to the east to see if clouds of smoke are coming,” Keith said.

Firebreak planned

The community’s biggest response to the fire is a plan to build a firebreak around the town of about 800. The firebreak would be about five miles in circumference and 20 to 30 feet wide.

The job of Steve Murray, the town’s volunteer emergency manager, is to get permission from 16 private landowners, some of them inside the city limits and some of them outside.

Murray said he has not received any opposition from the 12 landowners he has contacted. “All seem willing to work with us,” Murray said. “They want to do the right thing.”

To the landowners, he characterizes a firebreak as a “permanent, partial solution.”

Clyde and Kathy Nelson were especially supportive of the idea. The flames wiped out poplar and oak trees behind the Nelsons’ house and came so close to the house that “my garage siding melted,” Clyde said.

“It was traumatic until we realized how lucky we were.”

The tree rubbish remains in several piles in their neighborhood, on the edge of the city limits. It can’t be burned until at least 3 inches of snow is on the ground.

“It will be a big bonfire,” Kathy said, then adding, “on a day with no wind.”

Engaged, grateful

City officials Nick Amb and Sue Dufault see a community that is more engaged and grateful than before the fire.

“I’ve never seen a group of people come together as well as here,” said Dufault, the city clerk. “The sadness will be here for a while, but we’re still so thankful our town is still here.”

Amb, a schoolteacher who has been mayor for seven years, had similar thoughts. “We’ve healed, but it’s a week I don’t want to see again,” he said.

“It’s hard to call the fire a positive, but people work together and support each other during tough times.”

Mixed feelings

On Thursday, Karlstad Fire Chief Jeremy Folland expressed concern about the area’s lack of rain. “I’m nervous about the dry conditions and surprised there hasn’t been a fire,” he said then.

On Friday, a widespread half-inch of rain brought relief, but the moisture did not receive a full endorsement from the fire chief. “It gives us a little breathing room again as far as fire conditions, but I say that tentatively because I also have friends who want to harvest their crops.”

Folland said his department’s performance during last year’s blaze has helped gain support for manpower and equipment.

“We have a full roster of 32 firefighters,” he said. “And, it’s a lot easier now to ask for things.”

He said he’s also seen more volunteerism in Karlstad.

In retrospect, his biggest impression was that the fire was “off the charts” for the potential of causing great harm. He described it this way: “Imagine being in a blizzard, but the snow was replaced by fire embers.”

Despite those conditions, department members wish they could have done more. “We drive by homes that have burned and that’s hard on the department,” Folland said.

“When everything is said and done, however, having no injuries and miraculously no deaths overrode anything negative that did happen.”