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Firefighters extinguish remaining flames of a wildfire on the west side of Karls

Smoke from wildfires blankets northern Minnesota

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KARLSTAD, Minn. (AP) — Evacuees were allowed to return home Wednesday in Karlstad after firefighters stopped a rapidly advancing wildfire from engulfing the small northwestern Minnesota town, but smoke from several fires in the area was causing concern for other residents as it blanketed a large part of northern Minnesota.

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Updated figures show the wildfire destroyed seven mobile homes, four regular homes, two garages and 22 other structures in the Karlstad area Tuesday, said Jean Goad, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center.

The smoke was being carried as far as 200 miles away by strong winds out of the northwest and was trapped close to the ground by a temperature inversion, Goad said. The inversion was expected to lift and bring some relief Wednesday afternoon, she said.

"But folks in northern Minnesota are going to see smoke for a few days because there's so much peat burning up here," Goad said.

Residents in the Bemidji, Deer River, Grand Rapids, Orr, Cook, Virginia, Hibbing and Tower areas — as well as Fort Frances, Ontario — were among those who reported seeing smoke and expressed their concern to local authorities, Goad said.

About 180 miles east of Karlstad, Hibbing Fire Chief Scott Nehiba said his department had received upward of 30 calls by 11 a.m. Wednesday and had to check them all out to make sure they weren't false alarms.

"They are calling in house fires," Nehiba told the Hibbing Daily Tribune. "People smell smoke and think the house next to them is burning."

Bruce Roed, fire service specialist with the State Fire Marshal Division, said the wildfire that nearly surrounded Karlstad was 95 percent contained by Wednesday morning and had not grown since Tuesday night. About 400 people returned to their homes, he said. The fire burned about 12 square miles to the south, east and west of the city of about 750 people after it flared up Tuesday afternoon, but there were no injuries.

Authorities evacuated 69 residents of Karlstad's nursing home and assisted living center. They also evacuated the city's K-12 school as the fire blanketed the community in thick smoke Tuesday afternoon.

It was one of eight fires in northwestern Minnesota aggravated by extremely dry vegetation, low humidity and high winds Tuesday. The area has been in drought most of the year.

The fire danger remains extreme to very high across much of Minnesota, and red flag warnings were out for the southwestern part of the state. Anyone who witnesses an actual fire should report it immediately by calling 911, Goad said.

Fire departments from all over the surrounding area sent crews to help, and Goad said the Michigan Department of Natural Resources sent engines that took the night shift.

The Minnesota National Guard was expected to send a third Blackhawk helicopter Wednesday to join two Blackhawks and one Chinook helicopter already deployed on fire duty, Goad said. The big military helicopters have been helpful because conditions were too windy for smaller aircraft, she said.

Fire managers planned to fly over the area with infrared equipment to detect any remaining hot spots, she said.

The weather turned considerably colder Wednesday. The local forecast called for rain starting in the afternoon, changing over to snow early Thursday with accumulations of up to 7 inches. Winds were expected to be gusty Wednesday but not as high as Tuesday.

That will give firefighters "a little bit of a reprieve," Goad said, but it won't add up to much moisture to recharge the soils in northwestern Minnesota, which she said is 12 to 15 inches behind on precipitation.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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