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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By Friday, April 18, the Red River was out of control in Grand Forks. Permanent dikes that had been built in past years to protect the city at the 46-foot level were fortified earlier this year by volunteers with sandbags for a total height of 53 feet but the river came in at over 54 feet.

At 6 A.M., city sirens sounded, signaling the first mandatory evacuation of the day, affecting 3,500 residents. A voluntary evacuation for the rest of the city's 52,000 residents was declared, with the ordered evacuation affecting all people living within a 10-block area of the river. Grand Forks Police Lieutenant Byron Sieber stated, "People can expect to see water running down the streets in front of their homes in the morning."

The voluntary call to evacuate came on top of the mandatory order to get the people out of the Lincoln Park, Central Park and downtown Grand Forks neighborhoods. Sieber continued, "The Lincoln Park neighborhood is gone. It's now part of the river."

Grand Forks Fire Department Battalion Chief Jerry Anderson, who would later be the first chief on the scene of the downtown fire, recalled, "Once we got the Lincoln Park section evacuated, we turned to the Almonte Living Center it's for the elderly, a lot of people who are bedridden or in wheelchairs, all of them elderly. We started evacuation there and while that was taking place, our rigs were radioing back that there was water coming down our street.

"We called the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) and they dispatched payloaders to dig up lawns and any dirt, wherever they could find it, to dike off the streets (by the Living Center) and buy us time. But when they did that, the water would just come around from another way. We did get the Living Center evacuated. All the people were transferred to hospitals or other homes."

Anderson continued: "The next morning (Saturday), Chief Richard Aulich, Deputy Chief Peter O'Neal and myself were talking about what we needed to do that day; the number of personnel, etc., and foolish me, I said, in all sincerity, 'Well, the worst thing that could happen has already happened. The dike gave way in the Lincoln Drive area and we evacuated the lowest area in town. Then, we evacuated one of the most difficult places (Almonte Living Center), which is a low area with people who needed considerable help and care. After that, we got the second-lowest area in town, the Riverside Drive area, evacuated. The worst that could possibly happen has happened.' Well, those two individuals will never let me forget what I said because a few hours later, the downtown took off on fire and we had to deal with conditions I never even dreamed of."

On Saturday, April 19, the downtown area continued falling victim to the flood. Sieber said the EOC Command Center at the downtown police headquarters would be moved to the University of North Dakota campus. In addition, the Grand Forks County Jail (also at the Law Enforcement Center) would be evacuated as well.

According to Mike Flermoen, Grand Forks Fire Department training officer, "These were mandatory evacuations and we were being as persuasive as possible. We were working with the National Guardsmen and the Police Department using our two rescue boats and the Guard's five-ton trucks."

At approximately 4:15 P.M. on Saturday, firefighters in one of the boats being used for the evacuations noticed smoke coming from the roof of the Security Building at 101 North Third St., a five-story, brick-construction, turn-of-the-century building containing businesses on all five floors on the southwest corner of Third Street and First Avenue North. Flermoen added, "At the same time, there were a number of us at the Central Station that noted the smoke column coming from the downtown area as well." Secondary reports would report flames coming from the roof.

With boats heading toward the Security Building, the alarm was transmitted for a structure fire at that location. Apparatus dispatched from Grand Forks' remaining two stations (Central and South; the Columbia Road Station had been flooded out) consisted of three engines, a tower ladder, a rescue truck and a battalion chief, Anderson.

8_97_fireice4.jpg
Photo by Northwest Region Fire/Rescue
Grand Forks International Airport CFR Shift Supervisor Jerry Aase points to the floor of the crash truck: "When the water got up to this level and started to come in, we knew we were in just a bit too deep."

 


8_97_fireice5.jpg
Photo by Northwest Region Fire/Rescue
Grand Forks International Airport CFR Supervisor Ken Gunther: "When we started running mutual aid to small rural towns, we put three sections of hard suction on top of the crash truck to be ready for drafting operations."