Fire destroys ecology research building

The cause of the fire that destroyed the off-campus research and storage building remains unknown.

by Jerret Raffety

A major fire destroyed an important off-campus research and storage building for the University in East Bethel, Minn., on Monday.

The cause of the fire that destroyed the facility in the Cedar Creek Natural History Area remains unknown, said Ardie Anderson, the East Bethel Fire Department chief. No injuries were reported.

Students and researchers have conducted and collected ecological research experiments at the site since the 1940s.

Anderson said the cause of the fire is still under investigation, but there are no leads at this time.

“We’ve covered all our bases,” Anderson said. “But, it’s pretty hard to determine at this point.”

Dale Krueger, resident manager of the area, said that the fire started at approximately 7:30 p.m. Scorched treetops around the facility showed the flames reached as high as 60 feet, he said.

The fire destroyed three University vehicles, a snowmobile, a lawn-mower and other equipment and supplies.

Several samples used for biodiversity, carbon dioxide and nitrogen experiments gathered last summer were lost in the blaze, said David Tilman, a regents’ professor in the department of ecology, evolution and behavior.

“We already have the most crucial information we needed from the samples,” Tilman said. “But any future chemical analysis or experiments will not happen.”

The department will also have nothing to archive for future reference from this year’s samples, Tilman said. The department has samples going back to 1982, he said.

Krueger said his team is still working to determine the exact losses of the fire.

Fire department officials said the building type will make determining a cause for the fire a difficult task for investigators, Anderson said.

“The building had dirt floors, which makes the source of the fire hard to determine, because there were no burn patterns left over,” he said. “It’s basically a sheet-metal building.”

Fertilizers and nitrogen stored inside the building covered most of the building’s floor space after their plastic packaging melted in the fire, Anderson said.

The cause of the fire will probably be classified as undetermined, but there are no predictions of when the investigation would be complete, he said.

“(The speed of the investigation) depends on how fast the cleanup goes,” Anderson said.

Some employees of the Cedar Creek Natural History Area said they have their suspicions about how the fire started.

“There was no electricity hooked up to the building, so it almost had to be someone that started it,” Krueger said. “We have 5,600 acres out here, and if someone wanted to toss a match in our storage area, there’d be no way to stop them.”

Anderson said the East Bethel Fire Department has no evidence the fire was arson, and it would be difficult to prove in court, because the vehicle entrances were unsecured.