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Area high winds raise fire danger

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High, dry winds raised the threat of fire Wednesday across the region from eastern North Dakota to central and northern Minnesota. Fires in the two states included five in northwestern Minnesota.

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No serious damage or injury has been reported yet by emergency officials.

In one case, the winds did more than just fan flames; they caused the fire to start.

Power lines broke under the stiff winds Wednesday afternoon in Hoople, N.D., sparking a fire that, for a time, seemed to threaten much of the small Walsh County city, Assistant Fire Chief Brian Reilly said.

It took 40 firefighters from three departments to snuff it out.

The call came at 4:07 p.m. Wednesday when a woman noticed a broken power line sparking in a nearby hedge on the north side of the town of about 280.

"It was definitely the wind that broke the line," Reilly said. "Then it would arc every time it touched another line. Once one line broke, two more power poles snapped, so several lines were down."

The sparking lines started a fire in the dry hedges that led up to two large houses nearby.

But firefighters from volunteer departments in Hoople, Crystal and Park River had to keep their distance from the live wires snaking across the ground, Reilly said.

They simply waited until the fire in the hedges got away from the wires to knock it down.

"We were watering down the houses, making sure everything was wet," Reilly said.

Embers from the burning bushes started a mobile home on fire. The fire was quickly put out and the home sustained only minor damages, Reilly said.

"One of the houses had burnt shingles on it. Nobody got hurt, and there was no severe property loss. So it was not too bad," Reilly said.

"It did get to the river bank a little bit, and we had to put that out. So we had a little bit of a grass fire, too."

The north branch of the Park River goes through Hoople, which is about 12 miles northeast of Park River.

Within an hour, firefighters had knocked down the fire and had things under control, Reilly said. But he kept "a couple rigs still on the scene" until well into the night to make sure no hot spots reappeared.

Power was out to the town for a few minutes, Reilly said, and crews from Otter Tail Power were working into the night to get all customers back on line.

An Otter Tail spokeswoman, Cris Kling, said late Wednesday night that a power crew chief still working at the scene told her that after the wind caused the first power line to sway until it broke and started the hedges burning, the fire caught on a power pole.

The pole burned enough to weaken and snap off, coming down with a transformer, which in turn contributed to the fire that burned a second pole that toppled.

Crews still had one block, with a handful of customers, without power at 10:15 p.m. Wednesday, but figured to have them restored before midnight, Kling said.

The entire northern five-eighths of Minnesota are in a "red flag" warning by the National Weather Service because of the threat of fires.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has the region in "extreme" fire danger, meaning "the fire situation is explosive and can result in extensive property damage." The affected area stretches roughly from a line west of Breckenridge through the Brainerd and Central Lakes area and everything north of that line.

Fires were reported Wednesday near Bemidji, Warroad and Backus, among other areas across northern Minnesota, bringing the total this spring to nearly 1,000.

Five new fires started in northwestern Minnesota, burning 52 acres, the DNR reported by 8 p.m.

Firefighting teams from Montana, Illinois, South Dakota and Michigan were assisting, along with equipment they brought in, including fire engines, said Carson Berglund of the state's interagency fire information center in Grand Rapids.

Aerial crews dumped fire retardant, skimmed up water and dumped it on fires in the Superior National Forest and near Sauk Centre, he said.

"Today was one of the worst days we have had all year for fire," Berglund said. "It's very unusual for this time of year to have this far advanced fire conditions. So we are asking people to be extra careful today into (Thursday), with these extremely high winds and dry conditions."

None of the fires got out of control by about 5 p.m., and were being handled by fire crews, Berglund said.

He's hoping the forecast for a rain-filled front moving in later today will dampen the fire threat, Berglund said.

Nobody was reported injured Wednesday from fires or from fighting them, Berglund said. But it's always a risk, he said.

Last year, four people in Minnesota died after trying to fight fires on their own without calling for help, Berglund said.

Over the weekend, a fire near Floodwood Lake near Duluth burned more than 500 acres and destroyed a hunting cabin and shed.

So far this spring, 981 fires have burned 22,674 acreas across Minnesota. That includes five new fires Wednesday in the northwest region of the state, the DNR reported.

Elsewhere, to the voiced surprise of law enforcement officials who expected worse in Grand Forks and Polk counties, the hot southerly winds of up to 40 mph or more and dry conditions didn't lead to reports of fires.

One call came in to the Grand Forks Sheriff's Department of a pile of manure smoldering, as they are wont to do.

A deputy responded and the proprietor of the manure pile was not at home; but there was no fire from the smoke and no need for firefighters, a dispatcher said.

In Polk County, a discarded cigarette butt tossed Wednesday near Erskine, Minn., burned a few square feet that quickly was stomped out, said a sheriff's dispatcher.

No other fire calls were made in Polk and Grand Forks counties, or in the Devils Lake region or Pembina County.

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