No ordinary house fire

Managing Editor

Homeowner with a gun tells firefighter: ‘You need to leave.’

by Jim Boyle
A 58-year-old Big Lake Township man is believed to have set his house on fire on April 3, intent on watching it burn from his backyard and the dock that reaches over the shore of the Mississippi River.

Submitted photo  The Big Lake Fire Department arrived at house fire call to find the home already engulfed.
Submitted photo
The Big Lake Fire Department arrived at house fire call to find the home already engulfed.

When residents across the river in Wright County saw smoke and fire and heard the crackle of ammunition going off in the blaze, they called 911.

The Big Lake Fire Department’s response time would be unusually fast, since there was a crew ready to go at the station that had just been out on a lift assist that had been called in at 9:11 a.m.

Still, by the time they were called at 9:43 a.m. and arrived, the only option available was a defensive effort to contain the fire and save the houses to the west. The home was that far gone.

“If there were people in the home, we were too late to save them,” Big Lake Fire Chief Paul Nemes said. There were not.

It was one of Nemes’ fire captains who would discover this was no ordinary fire.

The captain radioed in that there was a 2 1/2-story split level structure 70 percent involved. As he did a routine walk around the house to get a 360-degree view of what was going on, he encountered an armed man.

Photo by Jim Boyle The Sherburne County Sheriff’s Department used its armored vehicle during the standoff.
Photo by Jim Boyle
The Sherburne County Sheriff’s Department used its armored vehicle during the standoff.

That man was homeowner Kurt Beucler, who was holding a long-barreled revolver, Nemes said. Beucler said just one thing to the veteran firefighter: “You need to leave.”

The captain, a volunteer firefighter and airline pilot who is as even-keeled as you get, quietly walked back to the front side of the house and radioed in a May Day, setting off the six signature hair-raising tones.

Firefighters who were laying lines in preparation for the defensive effort on the burning house retreated behind their fire trucks and waited for law enforcement.

A nearly two-hour standoff ensued at Beucler’s residence in the 19400 block of 180th Avenue in Big Lake Township, sadly coming to a conclusion when he shot himself at 11:20 a.m.

He was transported to Monticello Big Lake Hospital but died that afternoon, according to press releases issued by the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Office. Because he died in Wright County, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office is investigating the cause of the man’s death.

Sherburne County Sheriff Joel Brott said his department and all of the other agencies involved — from the Big Lake, Elk River and Monticello fire departments, the Big Lake and Becker police and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources — did an extremely professional job and in a textbook way.

“We would have liked a different result, but sometimes these things are out of our control,” he said.

Nemes agreed.

Photo by Jim Boyle  Big Lake Firefighter Peter Ahrens helped with traffic.
Photo by Jim Boyle
Big Lake Firefighter Peter Ahrens helped with traffic.

“Our feelings go out to the family,” Nemes said. “This is a once-in-a-career situation, and I hope it is. I’m thankful all the emergency personnel and everyone else there is OK.”

Sherburne County sent in its Emergency Response Team. Negotiations during the April 3 incident started with one of the responding officers from Big Lake Police Department, who was one of the initial officers on scene.

Negotiations were turned over to a Sherburne County Sheriff’s Office crisis negotiator once she arrived on scene.

The communications were done verbally with officers behind cover, and they lasted for nearly two hours in an attempt to bring a peaceful end to the situation. An armored vehicle was used to assist in the negotiations effort.

Brott said his department was also able to establish cover for firefighters to enable them to prevent the house immediately to the west from catching on fire.

It was observed through thermal imaging equipment that parts of the house next door had reached temperatures between 300 and 375 degrees, and water was needed to cool it down.
Firefighters, with the benefit of cover from armed authorities, would get water on the house in small spurts.

“We would get just enough water on the house and retreat,” firefighter Peter Ahrens said.
A device that is able to put water on a fire without being manned was also brought in as an added protection and way to get water on the neighboring home.

The top priority of the county and fire departments was the safety of everyone involved and the community.

“He never directly pointed (his gun) at anyone, and, if he had, we may have had a different result,’ Brott said. “It was simply negotiations that were going on.

“He decided to take a different avenue rather than setting down the firearm and getting the attention he needed to get.”

While the negotiations were going on, firefighters mostly stood by — behind their fire trucks — and peered out to watch the house burn. Smoke and fire could be seen from 6 miles away.

When officers reported the man had shot himself during attempted negotiations, paramedics immediately moved in and rendered aid. The subject was alive and transported by ambulance to Monticello Hospital with a life-threatening wound, Brott said.

Once taken away, firefighters were able to put water on what was left of the smoldering house fire. Utility crews were able to do their work. And eventually fire crews and many of the law enforcement on hand returned to their patrols and offices.

Ahrens, a retired farmer known for his pumpkin giveaways, said he has never been to a house fire call like this in all of his 29 years with the department.

Nemes, a full-time captain with the Minneapolis Fire Department, has been on calls at his day job that were too dangerous for his firefighters to enter the scene.

“But when that happens, we’re usually staged a few blocks away,” Nemes said. “We usually know what we’re coming into. I have never had it where we were there first and then had to retreat.”

The whole incident rolls uncomfortably around in the chief’s head. He wonders what would have happened if the response time had been delayed or if the situation happened at night when it wouldn’t be noticed as quickly.

“I don’t know that this thing was ever going to end peacefully,” he said. “I don’t know why the man did this or what led up to it. I have no opinion on that.”

Nemes does, however, believe strongly this was not a rash decision, noting the use of an accelerant to get the fire going the way it was in a daytime fire and the suspiciousness of gun cases housing the man’s gun collection being left open.