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Wildfire prompts evacuations in NW Minnesota town of Karlstad

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KARLSTAD, Minn. (AP) — Parts of the far northwestern Minnesota town of Karlstad were evacuated Tuesday as a growing wildfire blanketed the community in thick smoke, while dry and windy conditions helped ignite several other blazes in the region.

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Authorities evacuated the Karlstad's nursing home, school, assisted living center and a group home, all in the southern part of the city, as well as some residents in that area, City Clerk Sue Dufault said. People were being evacuated to Hallock, the Kittson County seat, about 20 miles to the northwest, she said.

"All around the city is on fire," Dufault said. "The winds are unbelievable today."

She said there were no immediate reports of injuries, adding that the "whole town is engulfed in smoke, but the flames and fire seem to be more on the south end of town."

Authorities ordered the evacuation when the fire reached a "trigger point" near the town of about 750 people, said Jean Goad, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center. Authorities dispatched water-dropping aircraft to try to keep the fire out of the community, she said.

"They've been hitting it hard with a mud tanker, which is a tanker that uses retardant, and they think they've got that flank under control for now. That could change because the conditions up there are just incredible," Goad said.

The Minnesota National Guard sent two Blackhawk helicopters, and Goad said a Chinook helicopter was on its way.

Fire departments from as far away as Grand Forks, N.D., joined in the fight, Dufault said.

The weather conditions in Hallock were 72 degrees with a relative humidity of just 19 percent and winds from the southwest of 35 mph gusting to 43 mph, Goad said. The National Weather Service described fire conditions as "critical" and issued a red flag warning for most of western Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas.

"So anything that's getting going now is going to move quickly," Goad said.

Crews were already fighting eight fires in northwestern Minnesota as of Tuesday morning, Goad said, and the number was growing.

"We've seen multiple starts today in different areas around there. There were two outbuildings lost near the city of Viking, and that's a different fire but it's kind of in the same area. The town is not threatened at this time but some homes were evacuated outside of town," Goad said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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