One man dies as fire danger rises across Minnesota

By The Associated Press
A central Minnesota man died when he became engulfed in flames
while burning cardboard boxes, and the fire went on to blacken 10
acres, authorities said as the fire danger climbed across much of
the state Thursday.
John Stoppleman, 64, of rural Swanville, was found dead shortly
after firefighters were called to a grass fire Wednesday afternoon.
Morrison County Sheriff Michel Wetzel said it appeared
Stoppleman had been loading boxes into an outdoor wood stove when
he somehow caught fire. His body was found next to the stove, which
was still burning.
Crews from nearby communities and a Minnesota Department of
Natural Resources helicopter took nearly four hours to put it out.
A Swanville firefighter suffered a broken leg after he was briefly
trapped under some bales of hay.
The fire damaged two hay sheds, a small utility building and a
trailer, said Jean Bergerson, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota
Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids.
With "green up" still weeks away, the state is covered with
fuel including dried grass and brush, said Carson Berglund, a fire
center spokesman.
As of Wednesday, 632 fires had scorched more than 9,000 acres
across Minnesota this spring, Berglund said.
The National Weather Service issued a "red flag warning" for
much of southern and central Minnesota on Thursday because of high
winds, low humidity and warm temperatures. The warning area was
east of a line from near St. Cloud and Cambridge to Redwood Falls.
The weather service also reported dangerous wildfire conditions
across the remainder of central and west-central Minnesota.
Restrictions on burning permits have been imposed in recent days
across most of the state, the main exception being parts of
northeastern Minnesota.
"When you get a little wind, and humidity is way down, you have
a very volatile situation and here we go," Berglund said. "It's
very predictable that it's going to happen, you just don't know
when."
Gov. Tim Pawlenty sent two Minnesota National Guard helicopters
to help fight a grass fire that had burned 6,100 acres in western
Lac qui Parle County near Ortonville in western Minnesota since
Wednesday.
Berglund said officials revised their estimate of the fire's
size sharply upward Thursday afternoon after they prepared better
maps and did precautionary "burnouts" in areas that had been
partially burned. Most of the acreage actually burned Wednesday, he
said.
Firefighters hope to have the fire contained in the next day or
so and get it under control this weekend, but that will require
cooperation from Mother Nature, he said.
"If it stays hot, dry and windy, it's going to be a struggle,"
Berglund said.
The fire earlier threatened people near Correll, but the winds
shifted and moved the fire out of the Lac qui Parle National
Wildlife Refuge and onto private property. It was burning on both
sides of the Minnesota River.
One outbuilding has been lost so far, Berglund said.
There were no immediate reports of injuries. The cause hadn't
been determined.
Firefighters were back on the scene Thursday at a grass fire
that had burned around 1,100 acres on the Minnesota River bottoms
at Fort Snelling State Park in Eagan. No damage to buildings was
reported, but the fire spread smoke over the Twin Cities area. The
cause wasn't immediately known.
The fire started Wednesday. Helicopters dropped water on it
until dusk. Close to 70 firefighters worked through the night, but
the fire flared back up Thursday.
Firefighters' main concern was protecting buildings and people
in the area, Eagan Fire Chief Robert Kriha said. They were
concerned that that the blaze could cross railroad tracks and
threaten nearby buildings, including the headquarters of Blue Cross
and Blue Shield of Minnesota, he said.
No serious injuries were reported, though one firefighter was
hit in the eye by a flying debris, Kriha said.
In west-central Minnesota, Mike O'Brien, a DNR conservation
officer in Spicer, said conditions there are beginning to look as
dry as the drought year of 1988. He said streams that are normally
flowing heavily at this time of the spring are slow or dried up,
which bodes poorly for spawning of northern pike.
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On the Net:
Minnesota DNR Wildfire Information Center:
http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/forestry/fire/index.html

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)