Germann Road fire, one year later: Why some buildings burned, and some survived
|By John Myers, Duluth News Tribune|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|
How far were they from the forest? And how wide was the driveway?
Crews from the
To an untrained eye, the pattern of destruction might seem random. But fire officials say that clearly was not the case. Home and cabin owners who had cleared space around their buildings and who had a wide access onto their property stood the best chance of seeing their homes or cabins survive.
The DNR study looked closely at 96 of the 100 homes and cabins that were in the path of the fire. The average structure that survived the flames was 27 feet away from "unmanaged" heavy vegetation in the woods, the report concluded.
Buildings destroyed were an average of 19 feet from the woods.
"We know the national literature has keyed in on that 30-foot clearance number, and the
The "wildland-urban interface" is where the forest meets buildings.
Nearly as important as open space was how far homes and cabins were from other "outbuildings." While the home itself might be
30 feet from thick vegetation, sheds, garages and even outhouses closer to the woods often ignited, carrying the fire to the house itself, said Ackerman, who led the post-fire analysis.
"In one case, we could just follow the ash pattern across the yard," she said. "The fire essentially stopped at the yard, but the shed was right up against the trees, so it burned. Then it (the shed fire) caught the garage on fire. Then the fire jumped from the garage to the house and the house was destroyed. ... It was like a fuse that leads from the trees to the home.
"That building-to-building distance is just as important, because a burning building carries so much heat and flame, longer than a burning tree. People don't think about it, but you need that 30 feet around your shed, too," she said.
Indeed, the fire analysis showed the average distance between forest and outbuildings that burned was just 6 feet. Outbuildings that survived averaged 17 feet from heavy or "unmanaged" foliage.
Ackerman found the same situation after the 2005 Cottonville fire in central
Not a single home or cabin was lost to the
"The crews need to be able to get in and get out fast. You don't need 20 feet of concrete or blacktop. But it has to be wide enough between the trees and stumps for them to pass,'' Ackerman said.
Properties with gates were slightly more likely to have burned -- 33 percent, than those without gates -- 22 percent.
Other variables had surprisingly little bearing on fire survivability, including how long the driveway was or how big or expensive the home was, Ackerman said. The assessed value of primary buildings destroyed ranged from
And the report shows that it's important to take action before a fire and not to depend on firefighters to save your home. Of the 100 properties in the fire's path, crews were on hand for 38 of them at some point during the fire -- including pre-treating homes and buildings with fire-retardant foam, actively dousing flames, clearing flammable debris or rapidly digging fire-breaks with bulldozers.
Firefighters may have saved as many as 23 homes and cabins by their action, the report found. But seven cabins or homes burned even with crews on the scene trying to save them.
Hot, dry, windy day
The fire started off
It also happened in spring, by far the region's most fire prone time of year, when last autumn's dead grass and leaves are still ready to burn, snow has melted and the new summer's foliage has yet to sprout. Anytime between snowmelt and greenup is potential fire time in the Northland.
All it took was a spark, and that came from a piece of logging equipment owned by Ray Duerr Logging of
The logging crew at the scene tried to douse the fire with a hand-held extinguisher. The operator told investigators he even poured bottled water and
By then, the fire was off on its 12-mile path of destruction. The wind pushed the fire to grow too big and too fast for anyone to stop, with fire jumping between the tops -- or crowns -- of trees.
"The forest fire then became a running crown fire with a separate surface fire beneath," DNR fire investigators wrote in their report last summer.
The fire burned across the towns of
The fire first was reported by the logging crew just after
In all, about 100 residents were evacuated from the areas around
Eventually, the wind diminished, slowing the spread and allowing crews got the upper hand early on
The fire burned in a mosaic pattern of damage along 8 miles. Not everything in the fire's path was destroyed. Some areas were hardly burned while others were charred, leaving miles of blackened trees and ground. The fire burned so hot that aluminum siding on homes melted. A swing set was melted and deformed in the yard of a house that had burned to ashes. Power poles burned, downing lines. Even wooden guard rails along roadways were burning.
Crews from more than 22 volunteer fire departments from across northern
Ironically, 2013 was a year with a very cold, wet, late spring, much like this year. State and local officials charged with watching out for fires thought they might make it through the fire season without a major blaze.
"Considering we didn't think we were going to have a fire season at all last year, with how cold and wet it was, I think it turned out about as well as could be expected," said
Fire departments, the DNR and law enforcement agencies had practiced a mock wildfire response in nearly the exact same area just a few years before, Kesler noted, precisely because the area is so prone to fires. He said the evacuation of the area ahead of the
"The fire happened on about the only day of spring that it could have,'' he said. "But we had a lot of cooperation, and the system worked. We got everyone out of the way."
Logging company hasn't paid
While no criminal charges were filed, the DNR deemed in
Meanwhile, insurance companies for property owners also are suing the logging company's insurance company and the logging company itself. It could be many months, if not years, until it's all straightened out.
"I receive copies of letters weekly from lawyers suing the logging company and the logging company insurance suing the logging company,'' said
Timber company takes big loss
Perhaps the biggest loser in the
Of the 7,442 acres inside the fire area, Lyme owned about 4,800 acres. Of that, 3,500 acres was red pine and jack pine plantations that were badly charred.
"Salvage efforts began within a few days after the fire, and regional mills such as
That loss could reach hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of standing timber. And even among the wood that was cut, the value was significantly reduced, Ross said.
The company won't say what its financial loss was from the fire, and Ross declined to say how much money the company may seek in damages through legal action.
Lyme has been working with the DNR to develop a reforestation plan but currently is waiting for a likely infestation of pine beetles to subside before tree planting begins. The DNR also has told homeowners to wait until 2015, when the threat of pine beetles likely will diminish, before major replanting efforts.
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