Herald JournalHerald Journal, Feb. 3, 2003

Area fire departments look back at 2002

By Ryan Gueningsman

Overall, the year 2002 was a good one for the fire departments that serve the area.


In Winsted, the amount of calls made to the fire department, just like the population, rose from the previous year.

"We saw an increase in calls," said former Winsted Fire Chief Paul Herbolsheimer. "It corresponded with the growth of Winsted. Our goal is not to let the fires follow that trend."

One of the department's biggest calls of 2002 came when two snowmobiles fell through the thin ice on Winsted Lake March 15.

The people on-board the snowmobiles were pulled to safety, but their snowmobiles sank to the bottom of Winsted Lake and had to be pulled up the following afternoon.

"We actually had training with cold water rescue just several days before the snowmobile incident," Herbolsheimer said.

Several weeks before that, a dog fell through the ice Feb. 27.

About nine firefighters responded and got the dog to safety.

Throughout the spring and summer months, things were fairly routine for the department.

"We had a garage fire, and a couple of structure fires," Herbolsheimer said. "Grass fires were way down this year ­ we only had two."

Something not very common in a small town is an arson investigation, but the Winsted Fire Department had to participate in one after a grainery west of town owned by brothers Charlie and Ralph Millerbernd was spotted ablaze by Winsted Police officer Danny Salo Aug. 24, which is suspected to be arson.

"We did our investigation, then watching the state fire marshal's investigation of it was interesting," Herbolsheimer said. Several leads were followed, but have yet to yield an arrest.

The fire department's new thermal imaging camera was put to good use at a house fire west of Winsted at the Keith and Justine Damlow residence Sept. 26, where the call said it may be possible that children were in the house.

"The camera has proved to be an extremely reliable asset," Herbolsheimer said. "We were able to use that camera and search that house a lot faster than we could have without it. Thank God there were no kids in there ­ but that alone, to me, justified the cost of that camera."

The camera was also used to check for hot-spots following a chimney fire in rural New Germany at the Robert and Jodie Dobratz home as part of the mutual-aid agreement in early December.

Several programs were carried out again this year, as in the past, to remind people both young and old about fire prevention.

The department does an "adopt-a-hydrant" program in which children can take care of, or "adopt" a fire hydrant in town.

There are also the coloring contests and poster contests the department does throughout fire prevention week in October.

A program to keep adults reminded of fire safety is the free pizza if your smoke detector works program. Veteran firefighters and rookies alike all help with these programs.

"There are also four new probationary firefighters," Herbolsheimer said. Mike Thonvold, Jon Davidson, Gerald Heinen, and Jeff McDowell have all joined the force. All four have already completed their first responder course and can respond to medicals as well.

Two people retired from the department in 2002 ­ Gary Rathmanner and Jamie Stotko.

In all, including medicals, the department received 168 calls, compared to 2001's 150.

For 2003, the department is under new fire chief Chuck Kirby (see side story).

Lester Prairie

"All in all, it's been a good year," said Lester Prairie Fire Chief Jim Hoof, in his fourth year as fire chief.

In the beginning of 2002, the Lester Prairie Fire Department was able to purchase some new equipment ­ a Laerdahl heart start, and a breathing air compressor.

"In the past, we always had to go to Winsted for that," said Hoof. "We bought that with our Longhorn Days proceeds."

A mass casualty drill took place with the police department in May.

"It coincided with the prom, and was a car crash," said Hoof. "It really hit home. It was right after that girl from Glencoe was killed ­ a lot of people had tears in their eyes."

There was also a chimney fire at the Bondhus residence last spring.

"Chimney fires have really quieted down," Hoof said. "Not as many people are burning wood anymore."

June was a busy month for the department. Several lightning strikes, a child being hit while fishing off a bridge by a vehicle, and a barn fire kept the department busy.

The barn fire was at Dennis Heimerl's farm June 10, and he lost a smaller barn and several of the pigs that were in it.

Twelve-year-old Tucker Pruden was hit by a vehicle and sustained a broken arm while fishing with several friends off the bridge on County Road nine June 18.

There were also two lightning strikes in June, said Hoof. One was in Baldwin Court, and the other on 170th Street.

Later in June, several members of the department helped to sandbag after the hard rains the last week of June.

In early August, the fire department had a shed fire call from the Henry Otto residence. Firefighters were on scene most of the day battling the blaze, which completely destroyed the shed.

Fire prevention also stepped up in Lester Prairie during the month of October as 25-year-plus fire prevention officer Wally Dibb helped organize the poster and coloring contests that the fire department annually does.

The Lester Prairie Fire Department had no one retire, and no new members join the force.

They responded to about 80 calls in 2002, compared to 120 in 2001.

New Germany

For the New Germany Fire Department, the year 2002 was a pretty routine year.

"There were four guys that retired, though," said 12-year New Germany Fire Chief Steve Van Lith. "That's 100 years of service. Jerry Roepke had 29 years, Ed Ekdahl had 20, Virgil Baumann had 24, and Lowell Latzig had almost 28 years. Three of the four are still on the department's reserve and respond."

There were several house fires in the New Germany area throughout 2002.

"There was one in the spring between New Germany and Highway 7. It was contained to the kitchen area," Van Lith said, "but there was still a lot of smoke damage and the home had to be gutted."

Like many other area communities, the members of the New Germany Fire Department assisted with sandbagging throughout the heavy rainfall this past summer.

"We helped with sandbagging and pumping water," Van Lith said. "There were 115 hours logged in one day with all the members that helped out."

Also this past summer, just like the past 20-plus years, the New Germany department hosted its annual firefighter softball tournament, in which 16 area departments including Winsted and Lester Prairie participated.

"I think the tournament's a good thing because it gives the firefighters a chance to get to know one-another in a different atmosphere," Van Lith said.

Another house fire claimed the Dobratz home north of New Germany in December.

That fire started in the chimney and was contained to the second floor. There was still smoke damage, and most of the home ended up being gutted, as well, Van Lith said.

"Neither one of those house fires had much water damage," Van Lith said. "We called Mayer for mutual aid on both, and we called Winsted for the Dobratz one."

The department is also working on filling its medical reserve, which currently has five members, including city clerk Shelly Quass.

In October, fire prevention month, the department also did the annual coloring contest, and brought the kindergarten class to the station to see the trucks and equipment.

Recently appointed lieutenants in December include Greg Miller, Dan Ruschmeier, and Ryan Goede.

"These are new officers this year. There is a lot of responsibilities," Van Lith said, "but I think they'll do a great job."

There is also a husband, wife, son team in the department. Bruce Fillbrandt and his son Nathan are firefighters, and wife and mother Mary is the secretary of the department and also on the medical reserve team.

New Germany is in the process of updating one of its pumper trucks ­ a 1968 International pumper.

"That needs to be updated," Van Lith said. "We probably won't get a new one until 2004 though.

The department received 52 calls in 2002, up one from 51 in 2001.

"It was a pretty quiet, normal year," Van Lith said.

By Lynda Jensen

Historic flooding is being recorded once again in local history books ­ this time for fire departments in Howard Lake, Waverly and Montrose.

All three fire chiefs cited June flooding as the number one event through the year of 2002.

For Waverly and Montrose, filling sandbags was the most prominent event, according to Waverly Fire Chief Mark Karels and Montrose Chief Mike Marketon.

Approximately 35,000 sandbags were filled for Waverly homes by volunteers, mostly around Big Waverly Lake.

The Montrose Fire Department visited Waverly about three times to help fill sandbags, Marketon said.

For Howard Lake, evacuating about 30 tenants from the mobile home park June 25, at the height of flooding, was the most notable event, said 2002 Howard Lake Fire Chief Tom Diers.

Quiet otherwise, except for medicals

Other calls were down because of moisture, such as grass fires, which left the local departments to deal with the usual medical calls and car accidents.

Earlier in the year, the Howard Lake Fire Department opened the storm shelter at the high school for the mobile home court May 5 when sirens went off.

The incident gave tenants a scare, since they were previously instructed by the lot owner to use a new storm shelter at the mobile court, but it was not ready to be opened yet.

The severe weather moving through the area deposited quarter-size hail, and damaged some out buildings in Cokato owned by Bob Berg. No one was injured during the storm.

Through the year, residents in Howard Lake witnessed three different times when the Air Care helicopter landed to pick up injured people, once for a pedestrian accident November, and another time when a passenger on a motor scooter needed to be airlifted out, Diers said.

There also were two car accidents in December, Diers said.

For Waverly, medical calls were down. "It was definitely quieter than usual," Karels said.

Karels also remembers the time when a man passed out in a tree around Big Waverly Lake during the hot and humid weather. The fire department had to be called out to extricate him with ropes, he said.

Montrose recorded about the same number of calls as the year before, but spent more time on each call, Marketon said.

There were no grass fires in Montrose that he could recall, Marketon commented. "There were a lot of wet basements," he said.

Howard Lake logs in 570 hours

During the week of flooding, beginning with the overnight storm June 24 through the 25, the Howard Lake Fire Department ended up working around the clock, logging in 570 hours, Diers said.

At the time, other firefighters were comparing the flooding to the Cokato tornado of 1992, in relation to disasters, Diers said.

Many firefighters worked more than 24 hours straight Tuesday and long hours through the week, starting with evacuations in the early morning hours, working on a gas leak at the mobile home park during the day among many other emergencies, and ending the day with a few false alarms that were triggered by system failures from the flooding, he said.

The fire department performed a variety of functions during flooding, starting out with weather spotting when the storm started up, Diers said. The Red Cross called Diers at about 2 a.m.

By the end of the night, the fire department evacuated more than two dozen people from the mobile home court. This was assisted by the Cokato Fire Department, Diers said.

"The evacuation was tough," Diers commented. Obtaining pumps to control the flooding was also a problem, he noted.

The department also responded to the Troy and Susie Lange residence at Lake Ann. The department received a call that someone was still caught inside the Lange home, which was ruined by flooding, Diers said. This turned out to be false.

The fire department was also called out Tuesday to a transformer fire at Wright County Road 6 near Roger Heuer's place, he said. This was brought under control.

Diers noted that the Monticello Fire Department loaned the department a pump.

To end the week of flooding, a fire damaged a mobile home at lot 66 at the Howard Lake mobile home court, Diers said.

The fire was probably from a generator that was being used, although the home in question was not one of the ones that was heavily damaged from flooding, he said.

Training, teaching

All three departments conduct regular training to stay current on the latest life saving procedures.

Every year, firefighters also set time aside to teach students at the Howard Lake-Waverly Winsted school district about what they do.

For example, the Howard Lake ambulance crew will soon be carrying medications for asthma and diabetes which it didn't before, Diers said.

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