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Now & Then: Fire doesn't change with the times

The Lahaina destruction on the Hawaiian island of Maui definitely is a catastrophe. The loss of lives, livelihoods, homes, and irreplaceable ancient relics from early inhabitants of the islands is a tragedy, no question about it.

Yet, our area of northern Minnesota has its own fire tragedy that impacts our lives even after 105 years have passed. Up to this day, it is the largest natural disaster in Minnesota history, with some 1,500 square miles destroyed by fire in a region encompassing 8,400 square miles, and 453 people killed outright. Eighty five others were badly burned, and 106 more were killed by ongoing influenza and pneumonia. It was estimated that over 52,000 people were affected or displaced.

To this day, not a complete list of victims can be tallied. Transients working in the forest industry and people missing or never identified make that impossible. Over 200 people were buried in the mass grave in Moose Lake, many not identified.

If they had lived, how different would our neighborhoods look today with the strengths and the abilities of these people realizing their dreams for this land?

In the Lahaina fire, deaths have climbed to 115 with 2,170 acres burned and nearly 3,000 structures destroyed. Reports say that not all people will be found in the carnage because the bodies were cremated in the intense heat. To date, 325 people are still missing.

Cloquet, about the size of Lahaina in population, mostly burned with some of the mills and part of Dunlap Island surviving. Fast action by the local police and the railroad organizing trains out of town to the Twin Ports made the difference. Very few people from town died from the forest fires.

Pictures of the burned towns and homes of Lahaina and of northern Minnesota are shockingly similar. Survivors in both cases have spoken as if the area turned into a war zone.

A report came from Lahaina that a baby had been incinerated in one building that burned. In the 1918 Fires, a family of five burned so completely that what was gathered fit into a shoe box. Mrs. Beach, wife of the Kettle River hotelkeeper, evidently burned to death on the main street in town because all they found when the fires cooled down was her wedding ring lying on the road bed.

The 1918 fires were mainly started by coal-burning steam locomotives from the Northern Pacific and Soo Line railroads of the period. With extreme heat and dry conditions, fires were scattered all along the railroad rights of way. The very ground burned, especially in the peat swamps. Scores of firefighters fought those fires for a month before the big inferno.

It was wartime, and the railroads were under federal government control. Everything was done to maximize war production. No troops were sent to help fight the fires. Strong fall winds swept in, the moisture in the air dropped to record desert levels, and the wall of flames built itself into a fast moving blast of death.

Lahaina had an aging electrical grid. A transformer exploded, and firefighters came. They thought they had controlled that fire. High trade winds whipped up another fire about an hour away and the firefighters were sent there. Meanwhile, the transformer fire went out of control again and swept across the countryside to Lahaina.

For Lahaina, the electricity source disappeared and no warning came for the people in the path of the flames. Both Lahaina and the world of 1918 in northern Minnesota knew severe drought and wind brought danger. It had happened before many times, but disaster had been avoided. People thought it was just another regular day.

Lahaina had one road in and one road out to escape the flames.

A family of four trying to escape burned in their car. Automba, like other timber towns in our area, had one road out of town. Delaying a decision to leave in both cases was fatal.

A man from Lahaina saw nothing but flames in his rearview mirror at one point, but made it to the ocean. When asked how he escaped, he said he didn't know other than by luck. Moose Lake emptied out its town and went into the lake. There was no such choice in other forested areas.

Many in Duluth went into the waters of the harbor to survive. Lester Park and Woodland burned. Duluthians watched in horror as the flames surged to the crest of the hills of Duluth. The fire came late to that part of Duluth, and the winds died and the flames receded as if by a miracle.

Reports from Lahaina, just as in the case of the 1918 Fires, spoke of the skies colored blood red, smoke so thick you could not see the person next to you, fireballs and surges of flames throughout the area burning. Those who survived felt as if their lungs were on fire. Reports were similar, talking about the fire as if it were an animal, a beast that took what it wanted and passed by some it may have claimed but didn't.

In both cases, survivors admitted they had lost everything but they were thankful they still had their family's lives. Many were not so lucky.

Lost pictures, mementos and legal documents were either hard or impossible to replace. Some had insurance but some did not.

The Lahaina fire fills our news media and gets a federal response. Efforts were made by the powerful in the Twin Cities after the 1918 fires to minimize the loss and hide the bad news. Those investors wanted more people in northern Minnesota to develop the area and in that way make money off the investments that had been made earlier.

The state of Minnesota did bring in relief workers and the Red Cross provided a lot of help. In both the Lahaina and 1918 burn areas, the economy went into a tailspin. Not only did families lose their home or their farm, in most cases what those families relied on to make a living disappeared.

Some have left the Lahaina area looking for work, and some are staying with friends and relatives all over the world until some sort of normal life comes back to Lahaina.

In the case of the 1918 fires, it is estimated that at least 25 percent of the people left for other parts of the country. But many stayed and rebuilt. With the forest gone, farming flourished.

Family stories I heard in my younger years were always put into two categories, "before or after the fire." The event so affected the old ones' lives and the stories that they shared that even today that phrase is still used.

Those families of Lahaina will mark their lives in the same way.

Dan Reed is a freelance writer and local historian who lives in Automba Township, where both sides of his family settled 130 years ago. He's seen a lot and heard lots of stories.