Waseca wildfire: 3 injured, multiple residents evacuated

A large wildfire north of Waseca, Minnesota, caused several residents to evacuate and injured three people Sunday.

According to the Waseca County Sheriff's Office, the Waseca Fire Department responded to a grass fire near the area of the 15000 block of Snake Trail in Waseca County. Multiple residents were evacuated due to the fire, but no structures were damaged. Officials estimate the fire burned fewer than 2,000 acres. 

The fire was contained by 8 p.m. Sunday and the last fire crew left by 10 p.m. Sunday. On Monday, fire officials and the sheriff's office are assessing the area and extinguishing any remaining hot spots from the fire, authorities said. Officials will return to the fire site on Tuesday to make sure the fire is out. 

MnDOT traffic cameras on I-35 show the large plum of smoke near Waseca. (Minnesota Department of Transportation / Supplied)

Officials say one resident and two firefighters were injured during the fire. The firefighters have been treated and have been released. The condition of the resident is currently unknown. 

Multiple fire departments and other agencies assisted with the fire, including the Minnesota DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife firefighters. 

According to authorities, the cause of the fire is under investigation.

The National Weather Service said the fire created enough smoke that it showed up on radar. A red flag alert was issued on Sunday for parts of southern and western Minnesota on Sunday, as dry conditions and windy weather create conditions ripe for wildfires.

Officials discuss the fire

The day after strong winds whipped a wildfire near Waseca through about 1,600 acres of marshlands and fields, the scorched earth that remains tells a clear story.

It moved fast.  And it came very close to homes in this rural area northeast of town.

"Yes, within feet," said Waseca Fire Chief Jason Forshee.

He credits the dozen or so nearby departments that turned out to help, and the work to stage water tanks and equipment around those homes to form a defensive perimeter.

That and good luck.

"We did stage resources, tankers, brush trucks, hand lines," said Chief Forshee. "Dropped tanks to protect those structures as the fire moved."

"That’s the key is I think there was some luck. I think it also was some of that protecting that happened."

The fire was reported around noon Sunday. The Waseca County Sheriff says it appears that strong winds rekindled the embers of a brush fire.

"That’s what we’re investigating to see what exactly happened," said Sheriff Jay Dulas. "Talk to the people that were involved and that’s undergoing at this time."

Sheriff Dulas also notes the invaluable help of area farmers, who used their own equipment to till upfield and create fire breaks to protect property in places that firefighters themselves couldn’t easily reach.

"They were also able to go to some terrain quickly that firefighters weren’t able to walk to or get water to," said Dulas. "And with their large track machines they made that work easier and quicker for us."

The fire is a prime example of the warning sent out by the Minnesota DNR just one week before. The lack of snow this winter means the wildfire season started out much earlier, with the first fires already breaking out in mid-February.

"Unusually warm temperatures, throw some wind at it. When a fire gets started, it’s got a lot of potential," said Jake Froyum, the Regional Fire Specialist with DNR Forestry.

"With these marshy areas where you get a lot of cattails and some of those really, tall swamp grasses, the lowland grasses, it puts up a lot of smoke because it’s a heavy fuel loading. There’s a lot burning at once."

The fire, which had traveled so fast in the strong, warm winds, was finally contained late Sunday when the winds died down as colder air moved in.

What remains is patrolling the edges with tracked vehicles and water tanks, looking for anything that still smolders.

Two firefighters were injured but treated and released.

A homeowner was also injured, sustaining burns to their hands and face, according to a family member, while working to build a fire break. Further information was not available.