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Sheriff: Karlstad fire was man-made -- Officials looking for those responsible for fire last week that burned 4,400 acres

GRAND FORKS - State and local officials said Wednesday they are looking for the person who started the fire that destroyed homes in Karlstad, Minn., and burned 4,400 acres in Marshall and Kittson counties last week.

They announced a reward of $6,000 for information leading to that person.

"We don't know for sure whether it was a negligent fire or something intentional," said Marshall County Sheriff John Novacek. "With arson, you would have to show some kind of intent. But if we are looking at more of a negligent fire, that's still a criminal charge."

He said the main point now is "we do not believe it's a natural thing, lightning or whatever. Whether it was accidental or on purpose, we are looking for the investigation to lead us to that person."

About 90 percent of the "County 27" fire has been contained, and firefighters still were working to extinguish hot spots and areas of burning peat, according to the Minnesota Incident Command System.

It is one of eight fires in the Wannaska Complex in northwest Minnesota. MnICS reported Wednesday that 90 percent of the fire near Viking, Minn., has been contained, and the others are being patrolled in case they flare up. Only the County 27 fire is believed to be man-made.

The County 27 fire appears to have begun Sept. 30 near the intersection of Marshall County Road 27 and 250th Avenue Northwest, about 4 miles southwest of Karlstad.

"We believe it was one ignition point," Novacek said. It's possible it was started from a roadway, he said.

Already on Wednesday, tips were coming in, he said. "There is some stuff we are looking at, some names have come up that we are looking into."

The fire spread fast. By Oct. 1, it had grown to 500 acres, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. On Oct. 2, temperatures up to 80 degrees, dry conditions and winds of 35 mph gusting to 45 mph drove the fire into Kittson County.

It burned 4,440 acres, forced officials to evacuated parts of Karlstad, destroyed 11 homes there and damaged dozens of other structures, the DNR said.

Nobody was injured, although several people had close calls and had only minutes to escape.

Not many details were released Wednesday about the suspected arson because it's an open investigation, Novacek said.

State officials warned people to be careful because many areas in the region still have some smoldering fires that can quickly send smoke across roadways, obliterating visibility. The peat fires are expected to continue burning for weeks or longer, often underground.

Much of the firefighting now involves heavy equipment knocking down trees, brush and cutting off fires, and digging out burning peat.

Novacek said anyone with information about how the fire should call his office at (218) 745-5411 or the Kittson County Sheriff's Office at (218) 843-3535.

Stephen J. Lee writes for the Grand Forks Herald