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Truck carrying coal caused wildfires along Interstate 29, sheriff suspects

Grass fires along a roughly 60-mile stretch of Interstate 29 on Wednesday could have been caused by burning pieces of coal falling from a truck's conveyor and onto the road, according to Walsh County Sheriff Ron Jurgens.

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Fire crews attempt to put out wildfires on Interstate 29 outside of Manvel, N.D., on Wednesday, April 15, 2015. Logan Werlinger / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS-Grass fires along a roughly 60-mile stretch of Interstate 29 on Wednesday could have been caused by burning pieces of coal falling from a truck's conveyor and onto the road, according to Walsh County Sheriff Ron Jurgens.

The truck was traveling south from Walhalla toward Grand Forks, he said.

"Every time the wind would gust, it would blow some ... onto the roadway," said Jurgens on Thursday.

Jurgens said a vehicle dragging its chains "had nothing to do" with fires along I-29, as had been reported earlier.

Fires popped up all along the route the truck took, Jurgens said, from Walhalla, along North Dakota Highway 5, south down I-29, to Grand Forks.

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Pembina County Emergency Manager Andrew Kirking said five of the fires in Pembina County were along that route. Those fires were at Akra and Hamilton along North Dakota Highway 5, and Joliette, Bowesmont and Drayton along I-29.

There were brush fires all along the interstate in Walsh County from Drayton down to Oslo, Minn., Jurgens said.

The fires continued along the interstate from Oslo to Grand Forks, where Jurgens said the driver of the truck was pulled over by a North Dakota Highway Patrol trooper.

The Highway Patrol is investigating the incident, said Patrol Sgt. Adam Dvorak. He would not confirm whether the patrol had stopped a driver suspected of being involved in the fires nor would he release any information about the investigation.

If a person was found driving a truck expelling burning pieces of coal, resulting in fires, that person could be charged with tampering with or damaging a public service, Dvorak said. This is a Class C felony if done intentionally, a class A misdemeanor if done knowingly or recklessly, and a class B misdemeanor otherwise, according to state law.

The brush fires threatened homes and structures up and down the interstate from Grand Forks to Joliette, and along state Highway 5.

At least two dozen fire departments from northeastern North Dakota, northwestern Minnesota and Manitoba battled the flames into the evening, and numerous other agencies responded by sending ambulances or personnel to direct traffic.

Residents also lent a hand.

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Mayo Construction, a contracting company based in Cavalier, N.D., hauled four semitruck loads of water to fire scenes, Kirking said.

"That was a godsend for those out there," he said. "We also had civilians bringing jugs of water for those fighting the fires. That's just what people do."

Authorities in Pembina, Walsh and Grand Forks counties had not heard of any structural damage caused by the fires nor had they heard of any injuries, outside of the multi-car accident on I-29 near the Oslo interchange.

The fires reduced visibility to zero along certain stretches of the interstate where smoke was heavy.

Eight people were transported to Altru Hospital in Grand Forks on Wednesday afternoon as a result of a multiple-car accident on I-29 near the Oslo interchange. Seven people were still in the hospital as of Thursday afternoon, according to DeAnn Burckhard, a spokeswoman for Altru Health System. One of the patients had been discharged sometime Wednesday evening. No other information on the condition of the patients was released by the hospital.

A statewide burn ban remains in effect through the end of April.

"Until we get some moisture, people should not be burning. Conditions are hazardous and life-threatening," Jurgens said. "Everyone should be aware of the warnings and the statewide fire ban that's on."

A person who willfully violates a burn ban is guilty of a Class B misdemeanor and subject to up to 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine.

Related Topics: FIRES
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