BAXTER - Strong wind gusts pushed a wildfire through five acres of woods and swamp Tuesday off Woida Road in Baxter, scorching the ground in its path and reaching within feet of houses and business along neighboring streets.
Things could have been worse, however. Firefighters from Brainerd, Nisswa, Pillager and the DNR were able to stop the fire before it reached any structures.
"This is one thing we worry about being in an urban interface, with structures and buildings so close to wild land," Brainerd Fire Chief Fred Underhill said. "Luckily, everything went well."
Firefighters attacked the fire on the ground with water hoses and portable, handheld water pumps. The DNR also moved through the burning swamp, brush and woods with tracked skidders, knocking down burning debris before it spread or blew away. Underhill said that using the DNR's equipment saved at least one house from burning.
In the air, a DNR helicopter with a bucket used water from a nearby swamp off Franklin Drive to douse the fire from above.
A helicopter leased to the Minnesota DNR on Tuesday finished it's water drop on a brush fire within the city limits of Baxter. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls » Purchase reprints of this photo.
The cause of the fire wasn't immediately known Tuesday afternoon, but Underhill said it possibly started with a power surge at an electrical box on Woida Road. Crews from Crow Wing Power were at the scene checking the box and power lines. The cause of the fire is being investigated by the DNR.
Soon after the fire was reported at 2:42 p.m., Crow Wing County Sheriff's deputies, Baxter Police officers and Baxter city staffers went to neighboring businesses and houses on Woida Road, Lynwood Drive, Kirkwood Drive and Wildflower Drive and warned people of the fire. Some were asked to evacuate.
John Raboin, owner of The Raboin Law Firm on Woida Road, said he was at Dave's Pizza in Baxter for a meeting when he got the call about the fire. He said he raced to his offices, not knowing what to expect.
The fire burned grass and swamp on Raboin's property but stopped short of damaging his office. His staff said they could hear the fire cracking nearby.
"We didn't know how fast it was going to go so we raced to get our clients' files out," Raboin said.
At 2:40 p.m., Denise Blood was talking to a friend when she looked out into the swamp behind her house.
"I happened to look out the patio and I said 'my gosh, there's a fire,'" Blood said.
Blood has a day care at her home on Lynwood Drive. At first, the fire was a good distance away. But that changed quickly.
Two Brainerd firefighters sprayed water on a brush fire Tuesday that threatened homes and businesses in Baxter. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls » Purchase reprints of this photo.
"A big, huge gust of wind came and I bet it moved 10 to 20 feet in a second in one big gush of wind," Blood said. "I bet the flames were more than 20 feet in the air. My biggest concern was the kids and getting my animals free."
She also called the fire department and believes she was the second to report the fire, following a motorist who reported flames in the ditch along Woida Road.
"I'm just thankful I saw it then," Blood said of the fire. "Another five minutes and it would have been on my property line and they wouldn't have gotten here in time."
Emilee Larson lives on Lynwood Drive in Baxter and was alerted by police of the fire in the woods just outside her home. She was at home alone at the time, working on a computer in her kitchen.
"They stopped it just before my house," she said. "It was scary. There were big flames. I looked out the window and there were fire trucks."
That's when panic started to set in for Larson, who then contacted her parents. She said she didn't know if she should start taking things out of the house or just wait out the blaze.
Flames stopped just short of an ice fishing house on Larson's property but scorched trees between her house and her neighbor's, which is an in-home day care.
Timing was a key.
Kevin Stunek, assistant fire chief in Brainerd, said firefighting units were en route to Baxter even before they knew about the wildfire. Stunek said firefighters may have been helped by a smoke alarm call to Grizzly's, apparently caused by the power outage related to the fire.
"Luck, luck, luck and getting here with a lot of resources," Stunek said made the difference. Had the fire crowned at the tops of the pine trees, Stunek said it could have jumped and taken off into a wooded residential area bordered by businesses.
By 3:45 p.m., firefighters were mopping up and hitting hot spots. By 5:07 p.m., they had cleared the area.
Stunek said this was the most populated area threatened by a wildfire since the much larger Barrows fire in 2002.
Had the fire happened Sunday with high winds, high temperatures and extreme fire danger, it could have been a different story, Stunek said.
"The potential was here," he said.
Jerry Sathre, who lives on Wildflower Drive just west of the fire, said his son, a Breezy Point Police officer, called his wife to inform her of the fire. When his wife called him at work, he said he came home, hooked up his camper and packed a few essentials in case they had to leave the area.
"I wasn't really worried, though," Sathre said after he saw the smoke of the fire from Brainerd. "I thought it would be nice to get home in case we did have to leave. It wasn't a panic situation, no."
Though police officers from Baxter, Brainerd and the Crow Wing Sheriff's Department had roads blocked off surrounding the fire, dozens of people gathered in neighboring parking lots to watch the firefighters work.
A Minnesota DNR vehicle moved through a burned out area Tuesday in Baxter. Heavy equipment was used to move into the fire area to extinguish the blaze. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls » Purchase reprints of this photo.
Several bystanders who worked in neighboring business complexes reported their power had gone out shortly before they noticed the fire. Dr. Leighanne Holmes, owner of the Physician's Laser Center on Edgewood Drive, near Woida, said the power went on and off several times before shutting off altogether.
"We looked out and saw this," she said, pointing to the fire.
Baxter Police Chief Jim Exsted said he was concerned about the lack of power at the stop lights at Woida Road and Highway 371, one of the busiest intersections in the city.
Gary Deming walked to the fire scene from his stepdaughter's business - Memories in the Making. When the power went out, the store was full of customers, and each time the door opened, smoke came in.
Deming had a solid understanding of what a fire could do. Living in the Barrows area, about 20 acres of his property burned in the May 31, 2002, Barrows wildfire that destroyed 720 acres south of Brainerd. In 2002, Deming saw the flames jump across Highway 371.
"If the fire could jump 371, it could go anywhere," Deming said. "On a windy day like this, there is no stopping it."
At the Rubbelke house on Kirkwood Drive, Jeff Billman was working on a college paper when the computer he was using lost power. The electricity flickered on and then went out again. A short time later, the air outside was thick with smoke.
"I didn't know what was going on," Shelly Rubbelke said. Her parents have lived on Kirkwood for a dozen years. Just 10 minutes earlier, Rubbelke had been out for a run in the neighborhood and hadn't notice any smoke.
"I walked outside and you couldn't even see. I was just freaking out because I didn't want to lose the house. Hopefully, they got it."
Billman and Rubbelke were out at the end of the driveway watching a helicopter circle overhead and drop water on the fire a short distance away. The smoke was light and sirens continued in the distance. A passing police officer advised them to keep an eye on developments, but they did not have to evacuate.
Closer to the fire, the wind carried ash and the droplets of water from the DNR helicopter.
(Staff writer Heidi Lake contributed to this story)
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