Fire & Ice - Plus A Flood

Lawrence E. Phillips recounts the triple disasters that assailed a North Dakota city and challenged its firefighters.


Grand Forks Fire Department Chief Richard J. Aulich Suppression & administration staff: 64 people Three fire stations: Central (headquarters) engine, tower ladder, rescue, hazmat, battalion chief; Columbia Road engine; South engine Population: 52,000 Area: 20 square miles It was...


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Grand Forks Fire Department
Chief Richard J. Aulich
Suppression & administration staff: 64 people
Three fire stations: Central (headquarters) engine, tower ladder, rescue, hazmat, battalion chief; Columbia Road engine; South engine
Population: 52,000
Area: 20 square miles

It was one of the toughest, hardest, North Dakota winters anyone can remember. Not even the "old-timers" could remember any winter in their lifetimes as harsh as that of 1996-97.

8_97_fireice1.jpg
Photo by Merlin Clark
This is what Grand Forks firefighters saw as they looked toward downtown (east) from the parking lot of the Central Fire Station at the start of the fire. The water in the foreground has flooded the fire station parking lot.

 


8_97_fireice2.jpg
Photo by Merlin Clark
An air drop is made on the downtown fire.

 

After six major winter storms pounded the state beginning in October, the weather events that occurred on April 4, 5 and 6, 1997, reflected a fierce duel between winter and spring. A warming front containing moist air moved up into the Dakotas for the first few days of the month; at about the same time, high winds coupled with extremely cold air plunged down from the Arctic.

At first, this unusual combination of Mother Nature's elements created a light, misting rain that covered North Dakota in a typical west-to-east direction. But the Arctic cold coupled with resonating winds clocked at from 40 to 70 mph quickly changed that mist into icy flecks that felt, at first, like a sandblaster hitting any exposed part of one's body at full force.

When the storm subsided midday on Monday, April 7, the state lay in an ice-encrusted tomb with snow and ice drifts 15 to 20 feet high. Livestock deaths reached record numbers, and a good portion of the state was without power. Nearly 1,000 utility poles were snapped like matchsticks statewide by the winds; the CBS-TV affiliate in Fargo, KXJB-TV, was knocked off the air when its 2,060-foot transmission tower one of the highest in the country fell victim to the storm.

But there was even more to worry about. The "Flood of '97" had arrived a few days earlier, on April 1, when a sudden surge of melted snow water runoff from the 100-plus inches of record snowfall was noted on a farm in northeast Dilworth, MN. Dilworth is a small community about 75 miles south (upstream) of Grand Forks, ND, on the Minnesota side of the Red River, and is considered the eastern edge of the Fargo, ND/Moorhead, MN, metropolitan area.

In the days that led up to the winter storm, Fargo and Moorhead's sandbagging efforts began, and even schoolchildren joined the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Casselton (20 miles west of Fargo) to help fight the worst farmland flooding anyone could remember.

On April 11, the Red River appeared to be cresting in Fargo at its second-highest level in history (37.55 feet). Vice President Al Gore toured the area and offered encouragement to the people who, having already been put "through the mill," were preparing for the worst.

The Red River reached its unofficial crest of 37.61 feet in the Fargo-Moorhead area on April 12. That brought North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer to the area. The river then started a three-day drop, reaching 37.3 feet on April 14. But, on April 15, the Red was on the rise again, topping the 38-foot mark. Just after midnight on April 17, the Red surpassed all previous Fargo-Moorhead records, surging to 39.51 feet. City leaders went on the radio at 12:30 A.M. to warn residents of two far south Fargo developments to be prepared to evacuate their homes. The Fargo Fire Department was also involved in the evacuation, using apparatus public-address systems to help sound the warning.

Later in the day, a weak section of dike failed in the South Terrace Drive section of Fargo, sending a deluge of water into Oak Grove Lutheran School and the surrounding neighborhoods. Those areas became mandatory evacuation points for Fargo. But the tension was really being felt about 75 miles to the north in Grand Forks, as residents monitored Fargo's Red River situation. They didn't like what they were seeing.

8_97_fireice3.jpg
Photo by Merlin Clark
The "Handy Mail" building (part of the Grand Forks Herald complex of buildings) burns at the height of the fire. An Air Force P-15 blasted a second-story-level skyway connecting this building and another Herald building with water to take the skyway out and stop the direct communication of heat to the connected building.
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