Fire & Ice - Plus A Flood

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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."


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."


"I took my Suburban through about 2 1/2 feet of water, about as far as I could," Anderson said. "I radioed a boat and they came and picked me up. We went and surveyed the situation, hopefully trying to set up some kind of water curtain. We were hampered in our firefighting efforts because when we should have been setting up our attack and bringing in additional equipment, we ended up having to rescue the people that we tried to get out all day but they wouldn't come. Once the smoke started to bank down, they got scared and started showing up."

Upon arrival by boat and National Guard trucks (the fire apparatus went as far as possible but was stopped short about a 1 1/2 blocks away by water almost five feet deep), the main concern turned to rescue.

"We verified that we had a fire on the roof of the Security Building but we had no immediate way to get to it or at it," Flermoen said. "Our first measures were to make sure everybody was out. A lot of effort was put on the rescue operation, especially when people that (we thought) had already been evacuated, allegedly, started appearing at windows and doors. We started directing some of the National Guard trucks and boats to those areas. Instantly, we found out that there were a number of people downtown that were in an area that was (supposedly) mandatory evacuated almost 12 hours earlier. These people were holdouts, and just didn't want to go.

"All of a sudden, they're now in some pretty deep trouble, and they're hollering. We used a megaphone and the horns on the Guard trucks to try and alert others that still might be in the building but weren't aware of the situation. We wanted them to come down from the upper levels to our level so we could take them out. We also had people showing up in the building next door, which was wall against wall."

Another concern was utilities the electric and natural gas supply to the city.

"NSP (Northern States Power Co.) was monitoring our radio traffic and was on the scene about as quickly as we were," Anderson said. "Our first concern was electrical power, as we were working under real high-powered, heavy electrical lines." NSP also took care of the gas situation.

Engine 519 was driven into the water toward the fire as far as the crew thought possible (at least 1 1/2 blocks from the structure) and a hydrant hookup was attempted. Under water, Firefighter Mitch Steien and others did get two three-inch lines with 21/2-inch couplings on the hydrant. Steien, at 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds, was surprised that the hookup succeeded he had never made a hydrant hookup "with water up to my waist," he said. "But we broke it down when we couldn't get much water out of it." Steien and Firefighters Orlin Anderson and Randy Johnson were later treated for hypothermia.

"When you've got ice floes going by in the street that are as big as a car, it's gonna be cold," Flermoen said.

Added Anderson, "Some firefighters had on hip waders and others had on regular bunkers. Regardless, the water just came up, over and into their clothing as they were bending over, feeling under the water to try and find a hydrant. We finally found the hydrant, got it hooked up, but that didn't work as there wasn't any water in the system.

"We then started drafting right out of the street but, remember, all this time the pumper was still running. We carried a portable deck gun to the top floor of a nearby parking ramp and hoisted up hoselines to connect to the gun. We did reach across the street to the roof of another building that was starting to catch fire, and we were getting ready to move the gun to the other end of the parking ramp so we could reach yet another building, which we barely reached, when it was reported to me that there was oil all around the pumper doing the drafting. When I got to the pumper, there was a huge amount of oil coming out of the pumper and I just told them to shut down so we could possibly still drive it out of the water instead of having to be pulled out."

Chad Cutshaw, Grand Forks Fire Department master mechanic, said, "The oil capacity of the pumper's diesel motor is seven gallons. When the pumper came back in, I immediately pulled the drain plug and let the water run out of it for a long time before I had to catch any oil. I probably got close to 10 gallons of water out of the diesel because it floated the oil up and out of the motor but it still kept filling the motor with water as it continued to run."

Anderson added, "We got the pumper as close and as deep (into the water) as we could but we still weren't close enough."

The first firefighter suffering hypothermia was brought back to the Central Fire Station in the back of an Army Humvee.

"He was still wearing his hip waders and he didn't even want to move he was so cold," Cutshaw said. "At first, we started to move him but then we decided not to; just leave him where he's at and take him right to the hospital. Don't bother unloading him. The other two returned to the station riding in a sedan-style humvee with four doors. I guess we actually stripped both of them right out on the sidewalk. We just kind of grouped around them, stripped them and got a warm, dry blanket around them and sent them to the hospital. They were so wet that the quicker we got the cold, wet clothing off them, the better off they'd be. For the next few days actually, all three were just fatigued; extremely fatigued. They just couldn't believe the fatigue they were feeling."

Unchecked, the fire continued to spread to the west and southeast due to the prevailing winds. At about the time the city was shutting down the pumper in the water, crash/ fire/rescue (CFR) crews at Grand Forks International Airport/Mark Andrews Airport (GFIA), about six miles west of downtown Grand Forks, were monitoring the situation on their scanner.

The airport fire crews hadn't escaped the flood situations, either. Gary Baker, airport operations director, had been involved with GFIA's Oshkosh Snowplow with the blade removed by using it to haul sand and sandbags to low-lying Grand Forks areas during the previous two to three days. The CFR crews had been switching drivers off for the Oshkosh, and getting involved in the sandbagging operations as well in their off-duty time as volunteers. Some of the CFR crews even had their families staying with them (including a St. Bernard) in their living quarters, as they had come under the mandatory evacuation orders themselves.

Wayne Wetzel, CFR operations specialist, was on duty with Jerry Aase, CFR shift supervisor, and they started talking with each other, "game-planning," early on during the monitored Grand Forks downtown communications.

Wetzel said, "We have two pieces of equipment here at the airport that we felt would work in the present high-water situation. One was a 1990 Oshkosh 1,500-gpm crash truck and the other was a 1974 Oshkosh 1,500-gpm crash truck. The final decision, however, rested in a few major areas of concern. One of those concerns was the pump panel on both pieces; the panel on the older Oshkosh is actually higher than on the new one, so we could operate it in higher areas of water. Another concern was that the fuel tank on the new piece was lower than on the old one and the vented fuel cap on the new Oshkosh would let the water contaminate the fuel through the cap once it reached that level under the truck."

Another reason to take the older piece rested in the fact that it had been used for mutual aid to other departments before, and as a result, three pieces of 10-foot, five-inch hard suction hose had already been mounted on the roof for use in drafting operations in smaller, rural towns. This hose could be connected to the pump panel and dropped into the street so pumping operations using flood water could begin immediately after their arrival at the fire scene.

Photo by Northwest Region Fire/Rescue
Grand Forks Engine 20 was loaded on a National Guard lowboy trailer.

The decision was made to take the older Oshkosh. "I called right to the Central Station and told the firefighter on duty that they could use us as a resource," Aase said. "I told him that we were ready to go and could respond ASAP. The firefighter contacted the battalion chief, who then raised the question if we could go through four feet of water with the rig. I told him, 'no problem.' He told us to respond to the Central Fire Station, pick up one of their captains and head for the fire.

"About halfway to the Central Station, we were told by radio that once we had picked up their captain, to report to the command post, which had been set up just outside of radio station KCNN. There we would pick up Battalion Chief Jerry Anderson, who wanted to be with us as they (the fire department) were in the process of coordinating an air drop of dry fire retardant on the downtown fire, and Jerry would brief us on that once we had him in our rig."

Once joined by Anderson, the CFR rig had just a short time to dump its 1,500-gallon tank through the front top turret before the aircraft was scheduled to arrive and drop its load on the fire. Anderson wanted to see whether the Oshkosh had enough power to get its water to the roof of the burning buildings and to now cool the huge pieces of burning debris that were starting to fly from the building's roofs that were igniting themselves due to the radiant heat and winds. "We pulled up right in front of the Securities Building, about 25 feet from the building," Aase said. "And we were also in about 3 1/2 feet of water in the street, as the water was already inside the doors of the building. We shot the whole 1,500 gallons and we had plenty of reach; we were getting on top of the roof with no problem; but Anderson told us that we were getting close to the time period that we were supposed to get out of the area for the air drop. The coordinator for the drop back at the Central Station wanted a clear, 10-block radius minimum so we wouldn't be bathed in the retardant. My understanding was the drop was to take place at 7:15 P.M.

"As we started to back out of the area, our horn went under water and started honking all the time we couldn't shut it off. I was on the top of the rig and saw that the plane was in the area, circling around by the Metropolitan Building and thought he was going to make a practice pass. Then, all of a sudden, when we got to the downtown intersection of Demeres and 5th, they dropped it. We were far enough away by that time, though, that the pilot's momentum Wayne could see it out through one of the hatches that it was just perfect. We were about a half a block away, still backing, and he released it right above us; but the momentum carried it exactly where he wanted it to go. It was pretty impressive."

The air drop was coordinated by Grand Forks Battalion Chief Bruce Roed, who has extensive experience with the Minnesota State Fire Program and had worked with these people before in many training sessions.

"When I saw all methods of conventional firefighting failing, it was my decision to contact the Northern Forestry Center," Roed said. "At about 5 P.M., I called Carson Berglund, who is the center's director…I told the dispatcher that I'm from North Dakota and I'm calling on behalf of the Grand Forks Fire Department. I have a very 'strange' request would it be possible to bring in an air drop to a downtown area?'…Within a few minutes, Berglund himself called me back."

Roed continued, "Berglund stated that they already had a helicopter in Ada, Minnesota, because of the flooding that was going on in that area. On Berglund's order, the helicopter was already on its way to Grand Forks as we were talking. The helicopter had a small bucket with it, also, with a capacity of approximately 150 gallons. The helicopter pilot acts as the drop plane's spotter, telling the plane's pilot where the drop would be most effective. In this case, he would tell the plane which building we're going after.

"The chopper arrived just before the drop plane, and they also had a smaller aircraft that flies very fast; it got here first and circled around. That stays up at approximately 10,000 feet or so and gets involved in the area air traffic control getting other air traffic out of the way so the tankers don't have that to worry about. Essentially, the person in charge of the entire air operation is flying that small plane and acts as the 'eye'; the helicopter is down low; then the drop plane(s) come in."

Roed went on to say, "I headed out to the airport. We decided that the helicopter would pick me up there and I could assist in determining the strategy with the chopper pilot from above. The first drop plane was on its way from Brainerd, as it was fully loaded and ready to go when I called."

"Once airborne, I could see that we had 12, maybe 13 buildings burning on their roofs at that time. That was caused by two types of flame spread…one was adjacent radiant heat from the building of origin the Security Building and it just followed in the natural direction right down the block to the west. Then, the flying debris and brands ignited the fires on the roofs of the buildings on the 4th Street block.

"Because of the high water in the street situation, we couldn't get to it conventionally; I felt that an air drop was the only way to go at this time. The first run by the first drop plane consisted of six or seven passes where he dropped chemicals. He dumped retardant on the site from different angles; it was pretty interesting just to see something you don't think of as being very aircraft coming in and swooping was very interesting to see him be able to hit the buildings like he did.

"After the initial drops were made (by the same aircraft), we had a second aircraft in the air, arriving from the Hibbing, Minnesota, Forestry Base, and his game plan was to follow up on what the first plane did. But the commander of the operation was trying frantically to talk with the other aircraft in the area because now we had several news teams, helicopters flying everywhere, and one particular one caused a lot of problems they got too close and wouldn't talk back to the operations commander; they wouldn't listen to him. So the commander called off the second strike drop because of that. He felt the operation was now out of his control and he turned the second drop plane back to Hibbing.

"This also became a personal frustration of mine. This particular media helicopter was very difficult to work with, and there were other aircraft in there. There was even military aircraft, people were coming in from all directions, and they were on various frequencies. Normally, the forestry people have a very, very controlled airspace when they do these sort of things and they aborted the mission at that time. They called it off and turned the drop plane back.

"That one media helicopter, I believe, chose to ignore the radio orders from the commander for them to leave the area so the operation could continue. The remainder of the media helicopters were playing the game. They were talking to us, they were staying back; whatever it was that we wanted. But it was just that one that really messed it up."

Roed continued, "After the second drop planes had been turned around, the pilot in the helicopter that I had been in asked if he could fill his small water bucket and try and hit a small fire that he could see starting on the roof of the Empire Theater, and I told him to 'go for it.' At that point, I had everybody out of there, anyway, so he did start working his small bucket and he did successfully extinguish the fire on the roof of the Theater. He also hit a few other hot spots where it appeared the fire was progressing down the block at that point. But I told him to take care of the Empire Theater first, as that's on a whole, separate block that had not been affected by the fire yet, except for the theater itself.

"After that, darkness caused him to quit because they can't fly (operations) after dark. They had a specific time when they had to be back on the ground at Ada, Minnesota, so they worked as long as they could with their bucket and headed back for Ada.

Photo courtsey of Grand Forks Fire Department.
A sign at the Central Fire Station reflected the attitude of the Grand Forks firefighters.

"Once the forestry chopper was out of our area, I took a DNR (Department of Natural Resources) person with me and we headed for the control tower at the airport. We talked to the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) people about this 'other' problem (the media helicopter that refused to cooperate); it was pretty 'plain' talk up there and we clarified just who was supposed to be in charge and what clearing air space meant. The airport tower knew exactly who it was, as we had gotten their tail numbers. They (the tower personnel) would now go through their channels and corrective action would be taken."

In Fargo, Harold Twitero, Fargo Fire Department master mechanic, was watching the Grand Forks story unfold at the West Side Training & Maintenance Facility, which is also its active Station 4. It was approximately 6:15 P.M. and he had been on duty that Saturday since 7:30 A.M. as Fargo had some of the same flooding problems as did Grand Forks. At the time, Twitero was working on the department's Zodiac rescue boat, and he heard the problem Grand Forks was having in reaching the fire with heavy master streams.

Twitero got the idea to load the Grand Forks pumpers on high, off-the-ground National Guard flatbed trailers. He called the Grand Forks Fire Department, told the dispatcher who he was and stated, "I don't want to stick my nose in your business but if the National Guard has some high flatbed trailers you can use, you might consider loading your pumpers onto those trailers and then get some payloaders to pull them into the fire scene area." Once there, he suggested, there would be no worry about the water getting up into the diesels of the pumpers while they are drafting.

The idea worked. Engines 20 and 30 were be loaded onto trailers (at different times) and pulled into the fire area. With both engines drafting off the trailers from the floodwaters immediately beneath them and into deck guns, the fire department started doing what conventional firefighting it could, considering the conditions.

One firefighter sustained injuries as a result of using the trailers. Engine 30 Pump Operator Cary Foy fell through an opening at the tractor end of the trailer (the pumper was loaded so that its front faced the rear of the trailer) as it was dark and no streetlights were working at their location. The National Guard had moved some of the center trailer boards to the outside swing-out arms mounted on the trailer to make the trailer wider.

When Foy fell through, he hit his knee and hip, sustaining bruises, torn cartilage, and scrapes up and down the length of his leg. He landed in nearly four feet of water but kept himself from going completely through the opening and into the swift current below. The rest of Engine 30's crew pulled him to safety. The openings on both trailers were then immediately filled in by firefighters.

When the CFR crew members returned to the Central Fire Station with their empty tank, Aase became concerned about the motor fluid contamination underneath his rig.

"I had two fluids to be concerned about," Aase said. "One was our regular engine oil, while the other was the power divider fluid. I asked for any kind of plastic and some electrical tape so we could cover the dipsticks for the fluids; someone came out with a couple of plastic bags. I taped one right over the and of each dipstick so that it couldn't come off and have the water seep in. It was just a little extra margin for us in case the water got too deep on our next trip downtown."

Aase continued, "They had us stay at the Central Fire Station for about two hours because they were concerned of the amount of water coming down from the small helicopter. They didn't want to have a deluge of water land on top of a firefighter who may be standing on top of the rig."

"When we did go back in for our second run, our main concerns were the exposures and some of the buildings that had just started burning on their roofs. We worked on many different roof levels; one-, two-, three-, four- and five-story buildings. Our method of choice was to stay stationary for each situation and draft from the floodwaters. We could pump a lot longer in that mode than in pump and roll. If we did that, we'd have to stop and fill the tank every two or three minutes. Once we connected the hard suction to the pump inlet, we never took it off. To save time, we just tied a rope to the end of it and we pulled it out of the water when we had to move."

Roed stated, "We continued evaluating the effectiveness of the small forestry helicopter before he had to return to Ada, and we decided to do some checking to see if we could obtain the services of additional helicopters in the morning. It was a long time before morning, and things were still burning pretty badly. We knew it was going to continue that way, and we wondered just how we could get our arms around it."

Through additional contacts, Minnesota DNR found a large "sky crane" helicopter in Bismarck, ND. It belonged to a private contractor who, at times, works with the forestry service in the mountain areas of the western United States. The contractor was doing a job at a large electric power plant near Bismarck, and could have the sky crane in Grand Forks by morning. The sky crane could handle a portable, 2,000-gallon water tank for drop purposes if necessary. At about 1 A.M., with Engines 20 and 30 still drafting off the trailers and with the aid of the CFR unit from the airport as well as an additional CFR P-15 sent from Grand Forks Air Force Base the decision was made to call for the sky crane.

Merlin Clark, assistant fire chief at Grand Forks Air Force Base and part of the P-15's crash crew, recalled, "Our main objective at that time was to try and save the Grand Forks Herald building, which was directly connected to the Herald's 'Handy-Mail' building (which was fully involved). The structures were connected at the second-floor level by a fully enclosed (glass/metal-frame) skyway/walkway. We turned one of the P-15's turrets on the glass and blasted through it with the water to get the heat out. It was close, though, as the radiant heat was already traveling through the skyway/walkway and heading for the Herald building."

He continued, "We did have a problem maneuvering in the water as we were running over submerged objects we later learned were full-size dumpsters which had washed into the middle of the street. Being we are not set up to draft with the P-15, we set our flow at 600 gpm per turret (the Air Force version of the P-15 has two turrets) and continually filled our 6,100-gallon onboard tank from two portable pumps drafting from the floodwaters."

Roed said, "The Bonzer Building in the Golden Square was flaring up, and we wanted to bring in, at that point, whatever we needed, and, whatever we could get, from wherever we could get it. As it turned out, had we not called for the sky crane, we would have been in there for at least the next two weeks with hot spots."

Roed continued, "The company that owned the sky crane Erickson Air Crane Service in Oregon had the sky crane here and in the air by 9 A.M., accompanied by one of their own mechanics. Then, a DNR person stationed in Bemidji, Minnesota, who works with forestry air teams all the time, also arrived. He offered to be a liaison and assist in the air operations, and we took him up on that."

"Then, I had made contacts with WCCO Television out of Minneapolis, and WCCO's Dale Dobish volunteered to fly me over the area to assess the situation to further direct the sky crane. Needless to say, we made sure that we had the air space pretty well cleared at that time.

"Through the night, and into the early-morning hours, we did get a handle on the situation, conventionally, and no additional buildings were involved. We didn't anticipate anything else major happening, and the sky crane became more of an overhaul tool for us. They dropped a lot of water on the First Financial Center and the First National Bank Building, as well as everywhere else. They were able to fill their 2,000-gallon bucket between the two bridges that connect Grand Forks with East Grand Forks, Minnesota, right on the edge of downtown. We ran them for a couple of hours and then went back to conventional firefighting.

"While the sky crane was in operation, I went back up in the WCCO helicopter and used their thermal imaging camera to determine where best to put the water. It's a regular camera but when you flip a switch it goes to thermal imaging. With that, I could absolutely pinpoint any specific area or corner of any building that needed water. It worked like a champ.

"During their activities for us, however, a house fire broke out in East Grand Forks that the EGFFD couldn't get to at all. The roof was burning while the house was still submerged in deep water, so the sky crane pilot asked us if he could take care of it. So, as a 'good neighbor' gesture, they did go over to it and dumped their load on the roof. From what I understand, when they dumped their 2,000 gallons on the regular truss roof, it just flattened; broke the trusses; and just opened her up and filled it up.

"Once the sky crane had done its job, a National Guard helicopter came in with a small bucket and took over the overhaul operation. It worked for the rest of the day but, at that time, we figured we did have the situation under control. The water in the street, however, remained at the same level throughout the duration of our firefighting efforts, and didn't start to recede until some days later."

"You know, if you would have told me a month ago that I would be calling in helicopters to fight downtown building fires, I'd have looked at you like there was something wrong with you. It was just one thing that worked. Even at one point, our own EOC was issuing that the fire was burning out of control that morning when it wasn't; we had it under control at that point. We were confident it would hold because we had the helicopters as overhaul tools."

"If you think back about it, in the initial stages of our fire, we had our own people (firefighters) down there in chest waders, trying to find the fire hydrant so we could attempt a hookup. I mean, you're wearing chest waders up this high (just below the neck line) and the water is like two inches below the (top of the) chest waders...All you'd have to do is slip and your waders become full of water and down you go. We could have lost people and I'm so thankful that didn't happen. Weighing out with the cost of the sky crane was a pretty easy decision for me. It definitely helped us out there and kept our people out of places they just shouldn't have been in (after the conventional means of firefighting were abandoned). "

Once the fire was declared under control early Sunday afternoon, the concern intensified for people who might have not gotten out.

Stated Grand Forks Fire Marshal Roger "Max" Allard, "We have buildings that are owned by different owners; managed by different apartment management companies who collect rents from many different people; they usually know who is registered to be in any particular apartment. As any other apartment complexes, a lot of them contain college students for example, and they have two or three other students staying with them who aren't necessarily on any registry anywhere. There's no data base. Then, it gets even more difficult because, first, we flooded the area and (then) evacuated it because of the flood. People on the second and third floors may not necessarily have been inclined to leave at that point and we didn't know that. By this time, the water is four and five feet deep, so they aren't going to come out on their own.

Photo by Northwest Region Fire/Rescue
Firefighter Mitch Steien suffered hypothermia while attempting a hydrant hookup in water that was up to his waist.


Photo by Northwest Region Fire/Rescue
Fire Marshal Roger "Max" Allard: "We had people going to the four winds".


"Just because the building catches fire doesn't mean they're going to leap into the water and try and swim away…We were very, very concerned that there were people in these buildings and we did actually get people out of many of these buildings (when the fire started, and, during the early stages of the other buildings igniting) with Coast Guard boats and so forth."

Photo courtsey of Grand Forks Fire Department.
Training Officer Mike Flermoen was in charge of locating people who lived in the fire buildings.

Allard continued, "To compound the situation even further, when we were there knocking on doors to chase people out, they thought we were there because of the flood and they were hiding out from us because they didn't want to evacuate because of the flood. A lot of people decided to stay in their downtown apartments; the second and third floor people; just to ride the flood out. They weren't willing to leave their possessions and whatever. They had nowhere to go. They don't realize they've got a fire situation on their hands...We had people literally run away.

"Deputy Chief Pete O'Neal chased two people up six flights of stairs to catch get them out of the building across the street from the Security Building, right in the fire. They thought he was trying to get them out because of the flood. They knew absolutely nothing about the fire at that point. So there are many, many different things going on at that stage…virtually no method at all of accounting for anybody.

"Now the entire city is evacuated; they didn't go to the Red Cross and get temporary housing in a motel like in a normal fire situation. We had people going to shelters in Mayville, North Dakota; Crookston and Bemidji, Minnesota; at our own Air Force Base some 15 miles from downtown; virtually every city was putting up shelters for us, so we had people going to the four winds at that point. Our training officer, Mike Flermoen, has been on this since the beginning, and he has tracked people down in Kentucky and even in California. I mean, there are people literally all over that just left town because everything they ever had is either burned up, flooded out or both. We would take people off the accountability list that we formed, and then we would get to someone that told us about two or three people that lived in the room next door to 'Joe,' so all of a sudden our list would be added to again."

To be on the safe side, though, six canine search teams, each consisting of a dog and trainer, arrived in Grand Forks on May 6. But at about the same time as their arrival, Flermoen had completed his check on the master list that he had compiled from all available sources.

The fire likely started in an 18-inch void space between the basement drop ceiling and the bottom of the first floor of the Security Building, according to Ray Lambert, North Dakota deputy state fire marshal.

"This was turn-of-the-century construction," he said. "It seems a fair assumption that the floodwaters had something to do with the fire starting. Our office also looked at three other residence fires in Grand Forks during the flood that we feel could have started the very same way, with the water coming in and over the electrical service. Electrical equipment getting wet with dirty river water could cause the current to bypass electric safety devices, and circuits or wires could get overloaded. It would be possible to measure the resulting heat in the thousands of degrees, enough to ignite materials. We know of no other ignition source" (except electrical) but the cause is still not definite.

Lambert added, "Where the fire broke through from the basement was at a center 'seam' in the building at the base of the stair tower, that went to the upper levels. The fire traveled up the non-protected stair tower to the roof, and was made visible through a service ventilation opening in the center of the building's roof."

Lawrence E. (Larry) Phillips is a 35-year veteran of the fire service and chief instructor at Northwest Region Fire/Rescue in Jamestown, ND, where he works with over 1,500 fire departments and rescue squads in the five-state Upper Midwest area. He began his career with the Bethpage, NY, Fire Department.