Fire, Flood Devastate Minnesota Town North of Fargo

March 30, 2009

First the floodwaters hit. The water was so deep that more than 120 people had to be rescued by boat. Then a home caught fire and burned to the ground.

While the nation anxiously waited for the Red River to crest in Fargo, small towns like Oakport Township, Minn., on the outskirts of Fargo were already dealing with their own devastating flooding. And in Oakport’s case, fire.

The house fire added another tragic dimension to the situation in Oakport Township. Giant flames ate a huge gash through the roof as black smoke soared into the sky, all while a line of sandbags surrounded the base of the home.

Clay County Emergency Operations Center spokesman Dan Olson said fire crews couldn’t get closer than 200 feet from the home in Oakport Township because the area around it was so flooded.

The cause of the fire isn’t known, but township officials have been telling residents who are evacuating to shut off gas and electricity before leaving their homes. No injuries were reported.

Sgt. Ryan Alderman of the Clay County Sheriff’s Department said authorities had rescued more than 120 people by boat in Oakport Township since Thursday night. About half of the rescued people called officials and requested help, while the others waved down boats while they were on patrol in the town of about 1,600 people.

Oakport has experienced Red River flooding in the past, but plans to build a dike from such high waters never really got off the ground.

Residents of Briarwood, south of Fargo, experienced similar widespread flooding.

Lowell Bottrell paddled a neighbor’s canoe through the swirling currents of the floodwaters to help bring his neighbor sandbags, generators and pumps. To keep warm, he wore a “Go Bison” stocking cap, paying tribute to Fargo’s beloved sports team at North Dakota State University.

“He was on the edge for a while but he’s doing better now, so that’s good,” Bottrell said of his neighbor. “There was a lot of current. I’m not the most avid canoeist so it took a while to get straightened out.”

Bottrell estimated that residents of eight or nine out of about 30 homes in his area had decided to stay. He said he was high and dry because he built his home after the 1997 flood.

Dave Albertson is among the residents of Oakport riding out the flood.

“It hasn’t even crossed my mind. I’m toughing it out,” Albertson said, standing next to a row of houses encircled by water.

Associated Press Writer Steve Karnowski contributed to this report from Minneapolis.

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