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Property loss at Cactus fire may be most ever in Perham

With more than 200,000 gallons of water pumped on the blaze, the Christmas Eve fire at the Cactus Resort and RV Park lodge was one of the most destructive in years.

With more than 200,000 gallons of water pumped on the blaze, the Christmas Eve fire at the Cactus Resort and RV Park lodge was one of the most destructive in years.

It was also probably the most expensive fire in the history of Perham, in terms of the dollar value of the losses.

Cactus owner Chuck Minge figured the replacement value of the lodge at $1.2 million.

"It was so disheartening after a year of hard work...It was such a beautiful facility. People were in awe over it," said Minge, who was planning a spring opening for the lodge complex and neighboring resort-RV park. Minge said the total value of the lodge and resort facility was about $2.6 million.

Minge's losses in the fire also included a 2002 Pontiac Bonneville, a New Holland skid steer unit, and miscellaneous tools and equipment.

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"We've never dumped that much water on a fire since I've been with the department," said Fire Chief Tracy Schmidt, who has served with the Perham Volunteer Fire Department for 14 years.

At least 100 tankers of water were rushed to the site between about 3 a.m. Christmas Eve morning and noon, said Schmidt. Fifty firefighters were involved in the operation, with much appreciated support from the New York Mills, Dent, Vergas and Ottertail departments, noted Schmidt.

The cause of the fire remains uncertain, but there is little doubt where it started: In the garage and storage unit on the west end of the 18,000 square foot complex.

"We know it started there, but beyond that, it is very hard to pinpoint the cause," said Schmidt, who called in John Steinbach, Minnesota State Fire Marshall to the scene later Monday morning, December 24.

Because of "the sheer size and dollar amount" involved in the fire, Schmidt said he felt it was "necessary and warranted for the fire marshall to come up and take a look at the scene."

Minge and his wife Brenda live in quarters above the neighboring Cactus supper club and restaurant, which were not damaged by the blaze.

He heard a noise from the direction of their window, which faces the lodge structure. When he looked out the window he saw the orange glow, and called 911. A motorist had already spotted and reported the fire, about 2:30 a.m., and by the time the Minges got out to the scene, firefighters were already arriving.

"It was a very large complex, so it was hard to get in front of the fire - it ran through the building," said Fire Chief Schmidt of the 300 by 60 foot structure. "Really, all we were able to do was slow the inevitable."

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Later Monday morning, Schmidt called in the Perham Fire Department's aerial truck, in order to get above the fire to spray water.

A firewall had been constructed between the west end of the lodge complex, said Minge.

"At one point, it appeared that the pool and condos could be saved," said Minge. "The firewall held for about two hours."

According to Minge, when the fire hit the roof and insulation above the pool, the fire appeared unstoppable. Because of the moisture and humidity in a swimming pool complex, a special insulation product is used--which is evidently more flammable than conventional insulation material, said Minge.

"Even with two engines pumping water, it was hard to keep up," said Chief Schmidt.

The lodge incident was actually a "rural fire," even though it is located in a fairly developed area just outside the city of Perham, explained Schmidt. Since that sector of Perham Township does not have a municipal water source, crews had to drive across the highway to the nearest hydrant, at the Dairy Queen intersection, for a water source. Tanker after tanker, including those providing mutual aid from the other area fire departments, were in constant motion from the hydrant to the Cactus.

It has been a "strenuous" year for Perham firefighters, noted Schmidt. Last summer there was a substantial fire at a Perham apartment complex, and only a few weeks ago, firefighters worked through the night at a structure fire on Big Pine Lake, which destroyed a workshop.

"It has given us a chance to test our procedures and equipment," said Schmidt, "but it has been hard on the guys."

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