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Fire chiefs attribute flurry of blazes to alternative heating sources

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PARK RAPIDS, Minn. -- A spate of weekend structure fires could be the beginning of something worse to come, warns one fire chief.

The Carsonville department rushed from one hot spot to another over the weekend with little sleep in between.

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And Fire Chief Roger Wilson warns that the higher fuel costs rise, the more homeowners are seeking alternatives, raising the specter of more burning structures.

“People are using fireplaces they haven’t used in years and the wood” is substandard, Wilson suggested.

“There probably some merit to that,” said Park Rapids Fire Chief Donn Hoffman.

He said his squad is responding to an average number of fire calls overall, but an increased number of chimney fires since 2012.

Wilson doesn’t remember when his squad has answered so many calls, with 2013 being Carsonville’s second-highest year.

The department responded to 189 fire calls, just shy of the all-time record of 197 in 2003.

On Sunday afternoon, Carsonville was called out to a structure on Becker County Road 125 that it couldn’t save, even though it called Park Rapids for mutual aid.

The 4 p.m. fire, at the home of Jason Wright, required the attention of 25 to 30 firefighters, who could only put a Band-Aid on the hot structure.

By 11 p.m. the trailer was gone, or for all intents and purposes, “heavily damaged” and useless.

Four hours later, Carsonville was called back to help Wolf Lake douse another fire.

Park Rapids’ Hoffman said the chimney calls are above average and a testament to the fact that homeowners aren’t cleaning their flues.

“It’s been a bad winter,” Wilson said. “It’s been an old-fashioned winter.”

Either that, both chiefs said, or homeowners have let piles of dried firewood dwindle and are now burning green wood.

That’s always problematic, both chiefs said.

“Pretty much all of ours have been heating fires,” agreed Lakeport Fire Chief John Dascalos. “They’re all weather-related.”

Old wood stoves back into commission, space heaters – “with things piled next to them,” Dascalos said. People are “using heating sources they’re not used to.”

Fire chiefs from Lake George, Laporte, Wolf Lake and other small towns have seen a marked increase in the number of calls.

Structure fires, wood stove fires, you name it. Firefighters are battling blazes in bitterly cold weather, causing hoses to freeze.

Some homeowners are firing up pelletized heaters or ones they haven’t used in years.

Hoffman said chimney fires can run the gamut from totaling a house to contained smoke damage if firefighters get lucky.

And Wilson wonders, if the winter wears on, how many nights’ sleep he and his squad will get.

State fire fatalities down

The number of people killed in fires last year was down 14 percent from 2012, according to preliminary numbers from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

Minnesota had 43 residential fire fatalities in 2013; there were 50 in 2012 and 56 in 2011.

“The only acceptable number of fire deaths is zero,” State Fire Marshal Bruce West said. “While we are encouraged the number of fatalities is down, we all must work together to make sure every Minnesotan understands how to prevent fires and how to escape them.”

The state’s all-time low fire-death figure was 35 in 2009; the high was 134 in 1976.

Figures are preliminary at this time because fatality reports from Minnesota burn centers and hospitals are not yet final, and the state’s fire departments are still sending data to the State Fire Marshal’s Department to be compiled over the next few months. Final numbers for 2013 will be released later this year.

There were five residential fire fatalities in the first month of 2014; there were three in January 2013.

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Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers Hubbard County, courts and breaking news.

(218) 732-3364
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