Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

“Ted from Owatonna” honored for his firefighting efforts February 14, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:05 PM
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“I HAVE A NEW-FOUND appreciation for what you guys do,” Ted Leon of Owatonna told members of the Faribault Professional Fire Fighters Local 665 Tuesday evening.

It’s the type of comment I’ve come to expect from Ted, who five months earlier stopped on a Saturday afternoon to extinguish a deck fire at my neighbor’s house. He’s not one to call attention to himself or his actions.

Ted Leon, originally known only as "Ted from Owatonna" extinguishes a fire on and under my neighbor's deck with water from a garden hose around 4 p.m. on Saturday, September 10, 2011.

But on Valentine’s Day evening, the spotlight centered on Ted as he received a Certificate of Recognition from the City of Faribault in a formal presentation before a City Council meeting and then afterward an Emergency Action Award from the firefighters during a casual gathering at the fire hall.

Faribault Mayor John Jasinski reads the city's Certificate of Recognition as Ted Leon, Director of Fire and Emergency Management Joe Berg and Jon Bolster of the fire department look on.

Kristin Klocek, left, and her daughter Kayleigh gather with Ted and Kathryn Leon and sons Jack and Thomas at the informal presentation in the fire hall by union president Ed Hoisington, right.

Ted Leon receives his award from the local firefighters union. This type of award is also given occasionally to those who assist at motor vehicle crashes. An award for helping at a fire was last given a year ago to Xcel Energy, Todd Rost of the fire department said.

It was there in the fire station, surrounded by his family, my neighbors and members of the fire department, that Ted expressed his gratitude to firefighters, recognizing the difficulty of their work. He shared, for the first time, how his heart was racing at the scene of the September 10, 2011, deck fire and for hours afterward.

That admission from Ted surprised me given his calm demeanor while fighting the flames. He spotted the blaze while driving on Willow Street, pulled over, instructed his wife, Kathryn, to call 911 and stay in the van with their three sons, and then ran toward the fire.

Kathryn told me Tuesday that the emergency call was actually made by a young man who also stopped. She locked eyes with him and he indicated he had contacted emergency personnel. The fire department arrived within minutes.

Alerted to the blaze by my teenage son, I grabbed my camera and raced barefoot across the street, reaching Kevin and Kristin Klocek’s home just as Ted was pulling a garden hose toward the burning deck.

He remembers focusing on putting out the fire. I remember screaming for my neighbors to get out of their house. Ted and I didn’t communicate. But if we had, I would have learned that he had already leapt through heat and flames to bang on the front door, alerting Kristin and her young daughter, Kayleigh, of the fire.

The City of Faribault, in the Certificate of Recognition, thanked this citizen firefighter, in part, with these words: “Your quick actions ensured the occupants of the home got out safely and the damage to the home remained minimal.”

Exactly.

I, too, thanked Ted Leon—again—Tuesday evening.

When I first thanked him, at the scene of the fire, I knew him only as “Ted from Owatonna.” He didn’t give me his last name that day, when I questioned his identity as he was about to drive away. But he was found anyway, round-about via a blog post I published on the fire. Bob Collins of Minnesota Public Radio picked up the story in his online NewsCut column. Then The Owatonna People’s Press and The Faribault Daily News published front page stories and photos I had taken, which led to the discovery of Ted Leon.

Ted told me Tuesday he’s not one to draw attention to himself, explaining why he didn’t give me his last name on that day we first met, the day of the fire. He was in a hurry, too, on that September afternoon to get to services at Divine Mercy Catholic Church about a mile away.

He wasn’t in any particular hurry Tuesday evening, posing for photos, but also taking time to thank the firefighters. That’s typical Ted, deflecting the spotlight away from himself..

When an alarm sounded at the fire hall as we were visiting on Tuesday, I advised Ted, “You better get going.” He didn’t miss a beat.

“I’m retired,” he quipped.

Kathryn, who earlier said everything happened so quickly at the September fire that she didn’t have time to worry about Ted, simply rolled her eyes and laughed.

The certificate Ted received from the City of Faribault.

TO READ MY September 10, 2011, blog post about the fire, click here.

To read yet another post about the day Ted was found, click here.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Farewell to the Swany White Flour Mill of Freeport December 28, 2011

Freeport promotes itself as "The city with a smile!" That's the smiling water tower to the right and the Swany White Flour Mill to the left in front of the church steeple in this June 2011 image. Freeport is among the communities after which Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon is fashioned.

CROSSING THE OVERPASS into Freeport last June, I snapped a quick landscape photo with the town’s charming water tower smiling at travelers along Interstate 94 in central Minnesota.

I should have focused, though, on the old-fashioned grain elevator-style flour mill to the left in my framed image.

Late Tuesday afternoon this historic icon, the Swany White Four Mill, built in 1897 and owned by the Thelen family since 1903, burned. Minnesota has lost an important part of her history, a still-functioning mill of yesteryear that specialized in producing commercial grade and organic flour and was known for its famous Swany White Buttercake Pancake and Waffle Mix.

That I never realized the importance of this towering, aged building on that June afternoon saddens me for I am typically drawn to small-town elevators. But when my husband and I swung into Freeport late on that Saturday afternoon 6 ½ months ago, we were more interested in finding Charlie’s Café, a popular dining spot in this town of 450. We were hungry. Charlie’s was packed, so we left town without eating there, but not until I snapped photos of the café and Sacred Heart Church and School.

Popular Charlie's Cafe is noted for its tasty homemade food including caramel rolls, meringue pies and hot beef commercials. To the right is the Pioneer Inn, after which Garrison Keillor modeled The Sidetrack Tap in his fictional Lake Wobegon. Keillor and his family lived near Freeport in the early 1970s.

Sacred Heart Church, Freeport, described by Garrison Keillor as "a fine tall yellow-brick edifice with a high steep roof."

Sacred Heart School in Freeport, a lovely old building that caught my eye.

I totally missed out on the Swany White Flour Mill, simply because I was unaware of its important existence.

Eleven years ago, though, the historic mill, Charlie’s and other central Minnesota scenes were photographed by National Geographic photographer Richard Olsenius, illustrating a story, “In Search of Lake Wobegon,” by Garrison Keillor, expanded in 2001 as a book. A sister-in-law gave me her copy of the December 2000 National Geographic recently, knowing how much I would appreciate Keillor’s writing and the black-and-white images by Olsenius. I do.

Keillor rented a farmhouse south of Freeport some 40 years ago. He and his family weren’t exactly embraced by the community during the three years they lived there. Keillor writes about his experiences in the magazine piece, where he reveals that his fictional Lake Wobegon is based on life in central Minnesota, including Freeport.

I wonder if Keillor is reflecting on those years in Freeport as news of the Swany White Flour Mill’s demise reaches him. A eulogy or a tribute to this historic mill would seem fitting for Keillor’s radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” broadcasting from Honolulu, Hawaii, on New Year’s Eve, far from Lake Wobegon “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

It hasn’t exactly been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon.

 

Field fires aplenty in Minnesota’s Red Flag areas October 6, 2011

A farm site between Morgan and Redwood Falls in southwestern Minnesota, where field conditions are dry and the fire danger high.

DRY, WINDY CONDITIONS persist in much of Minnesota creating ideal conditions for fire.

Unless you’ve had your head buried inside, you understand the danger and the reason for the National Weather Service’s Red Flag Warning that covers central and southern Minnesota.

Today would not be the day to build a campfire, have a bonfire or toss a cigarette butt out the car window (like you should any day). Burning bans are in effect throughout the state.

If forecasters are correct, these weather conditions will continue for awhile.

That all said, I wondered if my nephew, a kindergarten teacher and Westbrook volunteer firefighter, has been battling any blazes in his region of southwestern Minnesota.

Adam checked in with me early this morning:

Fires—we have had quite a few around here. Westbrook has had two; Dovray, two; and Walnut Grove, for sure three, all in the past week. It’s very dry and with the wind, it doesn’t take much to create a big fire. Many of the calls are mutual aid—helping neighboring towns with fires, but that’s how we do things here. All of them have been combines and fields. I haven’t made it to many of them as I could not get out of school at the time. But I made it to one on Sunday.

A story in today’s The Cottonwood County Citizen about a county-wide burning ban confirms Adam’s summary:

These burning bans come in the wake of at least a half-dozen fires that occurred around the county, most of which involved the harvest. Extremely dry conditions, low humidity and high winds have increased the potential for major fires.

I found an article in last Thursday’s Jackson County Pilot headlined “Combine fire sparks massive field blaze.” The story went on to say that a combine fire, fueled by 40 mph winds, quickly spread into a field. Fire crews from numerous departments in southern Minnesota and northern Iowa were called to the scene.

The Faribault Daily News today reports a Monday afternoon fire in the Lonsdale-Montgomery area that burned five acres of hay, 30 acres of swamp and 30 – 50 acres of corn.

Another blaze, this one on Wednesday afternoon in a soybean field northwest of Luverne, is reported in The Rock County Star Herald. In that case, farmers disked strips of black dirt to help contain the fire.

It’s a dangerous situation out there right now, especially for farmers bringing in the harvest in those dry, dry fields.

IF YOU WOULD LIKE to report on fires in your area, submit a comment.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

What a Red Flag Warning means for Minnesota farmers October 4, 2011

Farmers are in the fields harvesting corn (pictured here) and soybeans under extremely dry conditions.

WHEN I HEARD about the National Weather Service’s “Red Flag Warning” for west central and south central Minnesota Monday evening, it was the first time I had heard that terminology.

What does it mean?

Here’s the definition, direct from the NWS:

A RED FLAG WARNING MEANS THAT CRITICAL FIRE WEATHER CONDITIONS ARE EITHER OCCURRING NOW…OR WILL SHORTLY. A COMBINATION OF STRONG WINDS…LOW RELATIVE HUMIDTY…AND WARM TEMPERATURES WILL CREATE EXPLOSIVE FIRE GROWTH POTENTIAL.

That’s a strongly-worded warning for those folks living in the communities and rural areas along and west of a line from Alexandria to Fairmont.

Farmers, especially, have to be worried about the fire danger given they are in the middle of harvesting corn and soybeans in tinder dry fields. Mix dry plant material, strong winds and the heat of a combine exhaust, for example, and you have the potential for a devastating fire.

Michael, a southwestern Minnesota farmer who blogs at Minnesota Farmer, writes two days ago about fires he spotted last Thursday while combining beans. Click here to read his October 2 post which explains how blazes start and the resulting, devastating financial impact on farmers.

It’s all too easy for those of us who live in town, even if we grew up on a farm, to forget about the dangers that come with harvest. And this year, the fire danger is particularly high.

The Red Flag Warning remains in effect until 7 p.m. Wednesday.

DO YOU LIVE in the Red Flag Warning area? If so, has there been an increase in the number of fires recently? Please submit a comment and share.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Another fire in my Faribault neighborhood September 30, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 1:49 PM
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THERE’S BEEN ANOTHER fire in my neighborhood, this one two blocks away instead of directly across the street.

And this one happened at 1 a.m. in a vacant, foreclosed house in the 700 block of Willow Street instead of in the late afternoon in an occupied dwelling. (Click here to read about the September 10 fire at my neighbor’s house.)

This time I didn’t race to the scene, allow I certainly could have. The contingent of fire and police vehicles, with sirens screaming, woke me with a jolt early this morning. Typically I don’t think much of sirens in the middle of the night. Living along a busy street, I hear them all too often.

But when multiple emergency vehicles just keep racing by and sirens shut off near my home, I take note.

So I pulled myself out of bed, grabbed my glasses, peered out the window, failed to see anything and slid back under the covers.

At 1:19 a.m., when another fire truck—this time the ladder truck—roared past, I slipped barefoot out the front door, descended the steps to the end of the sidewalk and peered down the street toward emergency lights flashing in the blackness of the night.

I couldn’t see flames, didn’t smell smoke. But, still, I pondered whether I should change into street clothes, grab my camera and go.

I didn’t. While I’m a blogger, I’m no longer a newspaper reporter and photographer. My days of chasing fire trucks ended decades ago. Yet, that urge, that desire, that curiosity, remain.

I crawled back into bed, wide awake, the adrenaline still pumping, wondering how my husband could seem so disinterested in the drama unfolding nearby. He’s calm like that and able to shut out distractions once his head hits the pillow. He wanted to sleep.

Me? Surprisingly, I fell asleep relatively easily. But I slept fitfully, dreamed about firemen and police and a tarp covering bodies on a flat bed trailer.

And when I awoke six hours later, contacted the editor of The Faribault Daily News about the fire and read the story posted online around noon, I was relieved to know that my nightmare was only that, a nightmare, with no truth to it.

Click here to read The Daily News article.

Then click here to read The Daily News article about a fire at the same house during the early morning hours of May 19. That first suspicious fire caused only minimal damage to the home, owned by Wells Fargo.

Compare the two photos in the separate stories. You’ll see significantly more damage done during the second fire.

It’s pretty clear to me that someone is determined to burn down this house.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

“The neighbor’s house is on fire!” September 10, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:55 PM
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TED FROM OWATONNA, you are our Willow Street neighborhood hero. This afternoon you saved my neighbor’s house from what could have been a devastating fire. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

You were in a hurry to leave after you put out the fire on Kristin and Kevin’s deck with a garden hose around 4 p.m. today. You didn’t give me your last name—I was the one with the camera, the across-the-street-neighbor.

I am forever grateful to you for noticing the flames (as you drove by with your family), stopping, grabbing a garden hose, banging on the house and yelling for my neighbors to “Get out!”

This is a view from my yard looking directly across the street at Kevin and Kristin's house on the corner of Tower Place and Willow Street. The fire was extinguished before firefighters arrived.

I did not get many actual fire photos as I was more focused on making sure my neighbors were out of the house than in photographing the scene. But here you see wood chips burning under the deck.

Ted from Owatonna uses water from a garden hose to put out the deck fire.

That's my neighbor Kristin on the right, with Ted still working to assure the fire is out.

You deserve an award, Ted. Faribault firefighter Joel Hansen says the fire department gives awards for efforts like yours. I expect you wouldn’t want one. But you need to be recognized and publicly thanked.

If not for your quick action, I am convinced the fire would have caused severe damage to Kristin and Kevin’s home.

By the time my 17-year-old son noticed the flames (which was almost immediately) and hollered, “The neighbor’s house is on fire!” you were already there grabbing the hose.

Flames were shooting from under and around the deck in the mere seconds it took for my husband and me to race across Tower Place. I didn’t even slip on shoes, just grabbed my camera and ran.

All I could think of was that my neighbors were in their house; their car was in the driveway. I screamed, “Kevin, Kristin, get out of the house!” Several times.

My eyes focused on those flames blocking the front door. The flames that kept shooting up until Ted extinguished them with water from that garden hose.

Then Kristin and her daughter, Kaylee, rounded the corner from the garage, having safely exited through a back door.

Kristin told me she heard the banging, but, because some neighborhood kids have been banging on her house recently, didn’t think much of it. But then she got up to check, saw the fire and got out. Her husband and son were not home.

I am relieved, thankful, grateful that the fire was contained to the deck area, that it did not happen at night, that my neighbors got safely out. The deck and siding are damaged. That is minor compared to what could have been.

The fire damaged the deck and siding.

Faribault firefighter Joel Hansen continued spraying down the area after Ted left.

It could have been worse, much worse, if not for the quick actions of Ted from Owatonna.

If anyone knows the identity of Ted, please submit a comment and I will pass this information along to the Faribault Fire Department. My husband also got Ted’s license plate number, so we are confident that officials can track him down that way. We want Ted to get the public recognition he deserves.

Today, Ted, let me give you your first public, “Thank you!”

Readers, if you would also like to comment on Ted’s actions, I welcome you to do so.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling