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Reduced to rubble

Massive mounds of potatoes that had been stored in the R.D. Offutt Co. warehouse were reduced to ash by the fire, along with unspecified equipment and materials. Elizabeth Huwe | FOCUS

Fire at potato warehouse consumes building, sets records

It’s been just over a week since a large R.D. Offutt Co. potato warehouse near Perham went up in a blaze.

The remains of the warehouse, located northwest of town on Otter Tail County Highway 80, were still smoking and smoldering where they lay as of press time Tuesday.

Perham Fire Chief Mark Schmidt said the preliminary damage estimate is at about $4.5 million. Investigators from the state fire marshal’s office and R.D. Offutt’s insurance company were scheduled to arrive on Wednesday to begin their official inspection and determine a final damage estimate.

The frame of a semi-trailer could be seen smoldering among the twisted metal siding and other wreckage. Elizabeth Huwe/FOCUS

A press release sent out by R.D. Offutt Co. last week said no employees had been injured and the building was a loss, along with “potatoes and miscellaneous equipment used in the loadout process.”

The fire was reported at about 4:30 p.m. last Tuesday. By 10 a.m. the next morning, an effort of historic proportions had reached its end.

Each of Otter Tail County’s 17 fire departments responded, along with three additional crews from Becker County, bringing together a Perham Fire District record of 20 departments and 130 firefighters.

The combined forces used almost 1.2 million gallons of water in the fight, taken from multiple sources within and outside of the city, according to Schmidt.

Frazee firefighter Tyler King said at the scene that there had been some initial problems with hydrants freezing up, but that issue was quickly addressed.

Elizabeth Huwe

It takes all kinds; Many in the community answer the call during fire fight

Bud Melo had no idea what he was in for when he answered the phone that night.

It was just a little over an hour before closing time at Perham’s Subway. It was a Tuesday night, and it had been a fairly quiet evening before then. Just Melo, who is an owner of the business, and two employees were left to close up.

But that phone call turned their typical Tuesday into a mad dash.

It was the Red Cross calling. A group of volunteers were coming over from Fargo, N.D., to bring food to firefighters tackling a big blaze at a potato warehouse just north of Perham, and they needed a large order, to go.

A very large order – 50 foot-long subs, 100 bowls of chili or soup, and 100 bags of chips.

Wanting to help out however they could, the Subway staff didn’t turn down the order. Though they knew it would be nearly impossible to finish it all before closing time, they rolled up their sleeves and got busy, scrambling to put together a big order in record time, for the firefighters across town who were scrambling to put out a record blaze.

“We’ve never done anything at the drop of a hat like that before,” said Melo afterward. “I made every bit of chili I had, and then started substituting some soups... That was a large order. I was glad I was there.”

After about an hour and a half of hard work, the order was ready to go. Melo stayed late to wait for the Red Cross to pick it up and take it to the firefighters.

Subway wasn’t the only local business or organization to pitch in with last Tuesday’s fire emergency efforts. Help was needed, and the community answered the call, in various ways.

Just down the road from Subway, for example, workers at McDonald’s were also hurrying to cook up a large order for the firefighters, this one placed by the Salvation Army out of Fergus Falls, of 50 hamburgers and 50 cheeseburgers.

And at Perham Health and Perham Living, six employees of the dietary departments put in extra hours that night to make sandwiches and package snacks of cookies and chips to bring to the Fire Hall.

One of those employees, Diane Krumwiede, said they learned of the fire at about 7 p.m., and immediately reopened the kitchen at Perham Living, which had already been closed, to start preparing the food. The grill at Perham Health hadn’t closed yet, but ended up staying open later than usual, until everything was ready for the firefighters.

“There were six of us, three at Perham Health and three at Perham Living,” said Krumwiede of the group that stayed late to help out. “The hospital has always done this for the firefighters, in the past.”

Krumwiede said her son, Tyler, was the one who alerted them to the fire, and he helped load up the food to bring to the Fire Hall. From there, it was sent to the scene.

Also at the scene was a bus from Bauck Busing, which served as a warming hut. Perham Fire Chief Mark Schmidt later said the bus was a welcome shelter for firefighters, who were working in subzero temperatures of up to 20 below.

Paul Winterfeldt, co-owner and president of Bauck Busing, said he got a call from the Otter Tail County Sheriff’s Office that night, asking him if he’d be able to be at the scene.

He was happy to do it, he said, and he ended up staying for eight hours, volunteering his time.

“It was impressive to see the way they did their job,” he said later of what it was like to watch the fire fight up close. “Everybody seemed to work well and do the best they could for what the conditions were. I was glad I was able to bring something up there and watch the guys do their job.”

The Red Cross sent a group of volunteers to help serve food to the firefighters in Perham, as did the Salvation Army.

“We are glad we could assist the community of Perham and all the responders to the warehouse fire,” said Brian Shawn, of the Red Cross. “People there have been incredibly welcoming and thankful.”

There were also a number of local individuals who rushed to the scene to help out, including city workers, former firefighters and others.

Retired firefighter Fred Lehmkuhl, for example, stuck around the scene for most of the night, assisting with communications. When called for an interview the next afternoon, he was still catching up on lost sleep.

He said the firefight was quite an operation, and called it “the largest, scale-wise, as far as how many departments” were involved, to ever hit the Perham Fire District.

Only a small, ice encrusted portion of the warehouse was still standing after last Tuesday’s fire. Elizabeth Huwe/FOCUS

The fire was reported at about 4:30 p.m. last Tuesday and burned into the following afternoon, engulfing a large R.D. Offutt Potato Company warehouse full of potatoes and equipment. Fortunately, no one was injured. A total of 20 fire departments assisted at the scene, a record number for the Perham Fire District.

In an email sent out Monday, Chief Schmidt thanked everyone for their efforts, making special mention of “all the Perham city workers, Perham city police, Otter Tail County plow workers, Perham EMS and the Otter Tail County sheriff’s staff that went above and beyond,” as well as staff at Lake Region Power, county dispatchers and all the volunteer groups.

Schmidt also said, “Thanks to all the firefighters for staying disciplined and keeping safety in high regard. With everything that was going on with the scene, including numerous tanker trucks rolling in and out, and later when the whole place turned into an ice rink, I’m very proud of the command staff that I had around me that night and how good they did with giving me information so we could make decisions to best keep all fire operations running smoothly and safely.”

Marie Nitke

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