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Dent fire burns 37 acres

Saturday morning drivers on Highway 108 by Dent were met with a roaring sight--fire on the horizon.

On the east side of the city, wetlands were engulfed in a long band of flames that broke free from a controlled burning at the historic, 105-year-old Dent grain elevator. Smoke billowed across the marshes, ascending into a cloud-filled sky.

It was a tanker plane, called in from Bemidji through the Department of Natural Resources Forestry Office, which eventually managed to curb the spreading blaze. However, by the time it was contained, an estimated 37 acres of wetlands had gone up in flames.

Intended as a drill for fire departments, the "controlled" burn of the towering, railside structure raged into an uncontrolled blaze--and a genuine workout for emergency services workers.

According to Dent mayor Perry Coleman, who also serves as Assistant Chief with the city's fire department, the plane works by flying over a lake and scooping up water to be used at the scene. It then makes a pass over the fire line, and dumps a tanker load of water on the flames.

The uncontrolled fire first started at 10:40 a.m., when the elevator fell down in flames. Just as the building was falling, winds began to unexpectedly pick up.

Coleman said the department had checked with the National Weather Service prior to the burn, with the morning's forecast appearing suitable for the burn. However, once the fire started at 10:15 a.m., it was only a matter of minutes before strong winds started blowing on the burning building.

"The winds came up stronger than anticipated," Coleman reported. "They weren't supposed to pick up until early afternoon."

He said the fire departments had set up fire breaks, back burning a section of the wetlands--in the event that such a situation might occur. Yet, the winds were too strong and an ember from the elevator was carried past the fire break that had been established. The swampy environment made it difficult for firemen or trucks to access the fire breakout, but the plane was able to effectively target the runaway flames.

The Dent Fire Department was the host of the drill, with state instructors leading the training. In addition to the planned burning of the elevator, the departments had also set up a water transfer drill and training for area emergency responders.

Managing the training at the controlled burning of the elevator was Warren Jorgenson, district fire training coordinator from Willmar, Minnesota. Fire departments from numerous area cities all participated in the day's drill. Around a dozen crews from Perham, Frazee, Detroit Lakes, Elizabeth, Pelican Rapids, and other cities all came to work alongside the Dent Fire Department.

The decision to burn down the old elevator was prompted by pressure from the Canadian Pacific Railroad (formerly Soo Line) to remove the building. The elevator was located in the railroad right of way and had deteriorated over years without use.

Trackside elevator was distinct town image

Editor's Note: This is reprinted from the Enterprise Bulletin during the Dent Centennial celebration in 2004, written by then staff writer Nicholle Brokke.

The old elevator is one of the most commonly recognized sights in Dent. The elevator that sits beside the railroad tracks was used by the Dent Equity Mill to load and unload grain on and off the train until 10 years ago.

Lyndon Maasjo of Dent Equity said the company stopped using the elevator after the insurance inspector found it to be a fire hazard. The chain made the elevator susceptible to sparking and firing. Besides being a fire hazard, Maasjo said that it was "unhandy to get the grain in and out of [the elevator]."

Since then, the elevator has remained idle, but not forgotten.

Artists and photographers from Virginia, Nebraska, Iowa, Ohio, and Minnesota have used the abandoned elevator as a subject in their paintings or photography. Maasjo wryly commented, "If we had charged for the paintings and photography we could have made more than on the grain feed."

Dent Equity hoped to have someone buy the elevator or have someone take it away for historical purposes, but Maasjo fears that the elevator will eventually have to be torn down.

In the meantime, the elevator continues to sit by the railroad tracks as a tribute to Dent's past.