During big Sartell fire, local departments helped

by Nathan Warner
Contributing writer

The Verso Paper Mill in Sartell exploded late on the morning of May 28, killing one worker and injuring five. The resulting fire burned out of control, prompting Sartell’s fire chief to request aid through the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association. The state duty officer then activated the state’s Mutual Aid Plan and scrambled FAST (Fire Chiefs Assistance and Support Team) to respond to the disaster. Portions of the larger All-Hazards Incident Management Team (AHIMT) also responded later in the week.

The Elk River Fire Department mobilized through FAST during the crisis while the Zimmerman/Livonia Fire Department organized a response under the Mutual Aid Plan. Both departments were among the 91 fire departments in Minnesota that responded to the Verso Paper Mill explosion. Elk River Fire Chief John Cunningham traveled to Sartell as part of the operations.

“I think I’d be safe in saying it was one of the largest fire-fighting responses in the history of the state to a disaster that lasted nearly a week,” Cunningham said, adding that Elk River aided the local fire department in overnight operations, among other things. “We, along with other responding departments, assisted the local fire chief so they could go home to their families or attend to other local issues.” Cunningham said that the State Fire Chiefs Association was a wonderful idea to lay the groundwork for more interconnectedness between fire departments throughout the state.

FAST is part of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association and is primarily composed of senior fire chiefs who respond to assist local chiefs or incident commanders who request aid.

AHIMT, on the other hand, is a larger recognized federal organization based in Bloomington that can respond across the country, providing command, finance, planning and operational support for larger incidents.

Cunningham says the value of the FAST team and other management assistance teams, such as the AHIMT, was reinforced after 9/11, Katrina and other large incidents. “There really wasn’t any solid groundwork for thinking about mutual aid before these events,” he said, “and communities began to realize that there were scenarios beyond their resources, as many local fire departments are not staffed or equipped to deal with large events or catastrophes. So, this was a great idea to create a sense of community and preparedness in which departments throughout the state could respond quickly if need be to calls for assistance.”

Zimmerman Fire Chief Ryan Maloney agrees. “It’s really nice to know you have help if you need it,” he said, “and a response like we had with the Verso Paper Mill is really encouraging to everyone involved.”

Elk River and Zimmerman were among the other responding cities and towns that received letters of thanks from the city of Sartell. “There’s a real sense of good will,” Cunningham said, “and we even sent our heavy rescue truck up for their SummerFest Grand Day Parade a few weeks ago.”

Meanwhile, Cunningham said members of AHIMT are up in flood-damaged areas of Duluth, aiding local emergency personnel in the management phase of that incident.