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Blog Archive: May 2015

Smokey Knows the Truth About Wildfires — And Here it Is

Posted May 28, 2015
Wildfires have been in the news often of late. Most of us do watch the videos, look at maps, watch journalists interview the fleeing campers and the newly homeless, and shake our heads because…well, it’s all just such a shame.
After that, unless the flames are in our neighborhoods, we don’t think about them much.
But maybe we should. Most Minnesotans live in places where wildfire is not entirely improbable, and many have created personal get-aways in areas where fire risk is high. We’d all be safer if everyone listened to Smokey Bear and learned to prevent forest fires — and prairie fires — and barbequed back yards.
wildfire in prairie
​Photo: About 98 percent of wildfires in the state
are caused by humans.
High temperatures combined with limited rainfall and high winds, no matter where they occur, create the perfect opportunity for wildfire. But fires don’t start by themselves; something has to spark a flame. If you ask people what causes wildfires, some will say it’s lightning. Others will mention downed electrical wires. But somebody — the one who’s right — will answer, “people.”
About 98 percent of wildfires in Minnesota are caused by humans. More than 50 percent are started by campfires too large, too carelessly built, left unattended, or still burning when people think the fire is extinguished. The State Fire Marshal Division offers these tips to keep from sparking a disaster:
  • Check the DNR site for burning restrictions before lighting a campfire.
  • Use a fire ring and stay at least five feet from combustible material.
  • Avoid overhanging branches or shrubbery.
  • Never use a liquid accelerant on a wood fire. Gasoline reacts explosively, and charcoal lighter won’t soak in properly.
  • Keep a bucket of water and a shovel nearby.
  • Keep a kid-free zone of three feet around the campfire.
  • Never leave a campfire unattended.
  • Limit campfires to three feet tall by three feet wide, and be sure your campfire is cold to the touch before leaving it. Feel it with your hands. Make sure.
The National Association of State Foresters says that more than 72,000 U.S. communities are at risk from wildfires, and that there are 45 million homes located in or near wild lands.  If you live in an area where wildfires are a risk, consider these tips and find more advice from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA):
  • Clear leaves and other vegetative debris from roofs, gutters, porches and decks to keep embers from igniting your home.
  • Keep dead plants, firewood, propane tanks — any combustible materials — 30 feet from your home, deck, garage and sheds. If it can burn, move it away.
  • Wildfire can spread through treetops. The trees on your property should be pruned to 6-to-10 feet from the ground.
  • Keep your lawn well hydrated and maintained. Dry grass and shrubs feed fires. If it’s brown, cut it down.
  • Prevent sparks from penetrating your roof or entering your home. Keep roof shingles maintained. Protect attic vents and soffits with 1/8-inch wire mesh.
There’s more you can learn — and online, some fun ways to learn it. The NFPA provides wildfire information for families and youths. They use videos, drawings and posters created by kids, and a guide to help adults start conversations in communities about how to prevent, and how to react to a wildfire scenario.
The interactive games and quizzes on the NFPA site include one called the “Living with Fire Game.”  It puts the player in the role of fire manager on a wildfire scene — an educational challenge for adults and kids over 10.  There are also teacher lesson plans and resource links for people who want to share what they’ve learned about wildfire safety.
‘Tis the season for wildfires in Minnesota. As you head to the woods or the back yard, take these tips with you, and help protect the places that make the Land of 10,000 Lakes such a stunning place to be outside.

Your DNA May Help BCA Identify and Return Missing Loved Ones

Posted May 21, 2015

Hundreds of Minnesotans with missing family members live from day-to-day without knowing what happened to their loved one. There is no body, there are no clues regarding the disappearance — and perhaps most frustrating, there’s no way for families to know whether they should be healing the pain of loss or hoping for a miracle. Answers of any kind could help relieve them from living in limbo between hope and horror.

There is another group in limbo, as well — those who’ve been found, but not identified. Across Minnesota, dozens of deceased men, women and children are waiting for someone to learn their identities, give them back their names and return them to their families. They wait silently for recognition, and in some cases, for justice — and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) uses scientific expertise and technology to help.

As part of that effort, family members of missing persons in Minnesota are asked to contact the BCA and arrange to provide DNA samples. Those samples will be entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System. There, DNA profiles can be checked against profiles from unidentified remains in Minnesota and across the entire nation. The process does work; the BCA has already identified several people.

•    Pearline Roberta Walton of Minneapolis was last seen early in the summer of 1993. Her remains were discovered in Nov. that year in Polk County, Wisconsin and not identified until a DNA match was made in 2013. The investigation into her death is ongoing.
•    Michelle Yvette Busha of Bay City, Texas, was discovered on May 30, 1980, in a ravine off I-90 east of Blue Earth in Faribault County. Her killer has been in prison for decades, but investigators didn’t know who she was. A DNA match identified her earlier this year.
•    Cassandra Rhines of Minneapolis was last seen in June 1985. Her remains were found in May 2014 and she was identified through DNA in August 2014. The investigation into her death is ongoing.

Submitting a DNA sample amounts to a simple swab of the inside of a family member’s cheek. Without the family-member DNA, this effort to identify the remains of missing people can’t succeed. As a result, the painful, years-old questions that could be answered simply linger on.

To provide a DNA sample, begin by emailing Kris Rush, manager of the Minnesota Missing & Unidentified Persons Clearinghouse, or call 651-793-1118.

When you write or call, be sure to have the missing person’s full name and date of birth. The BCA staff will guide you through the process.
Minnesota needs families to come forward — no matter how long ago their loved one went missing. Learning that someone they loved is, in fact, deceased doesn’t diminish pain or despair. It won’t answer all the questions. But with information that’s scientifically confirmed comes the opportunity to concede the loss and move forward. Every family deserves at least that much.

Is Your Child Safe in the Car? Here's How to be Sure

Posted May 14, 2015
Little human beings are so vulnerable.
They’re incredibly breakable, dangerously curious, and until a certain age, their judgment’s not that good. They walk off the edges of things. They put sharp objects in their mouths. They need to be watched constantly, and most parents provide that protection.
The one place they can’t get into trouble is the car, right? They’re strapped in! But here’s the rub: Cars run into each other. Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of accidental death for children ages 4-to-16 — and there’s much more involved than bad driving.
photo of state patrol officer showing mother how to use a child safety seat
​Photo: State Patrol officer shows a mother how to
properly secure her child in a car seat.
The DPS Office of Traffic Safety says that 70 percent of the child safety seats in Minnesota are not correctly installed. That’s sort of like watching your toddler part of the time. An incorrectly installed car seat may be useless, so essentially, you’re leaving your little human unprotected.
The Office of Traffic Safety has more than statistics, though. They also have solutions.
First, you need a working car seat — one with all its joints and seams and straps in good condition.  A second-hand child restraint seat may be safe to use if:
  • You know the previous owner and how the seat was used.
  • It’s not more than six years old.
  • It has not been involved in a crash.
  • The instruction manual comes with it.
  • All the original labels are on the child restraint (with product codes and style numbers.)
  • It’s free of any product safety recalls. (That’s where the codes and numbers come in.)
Having read these suggestions, you’ll understand why car seats from garage sales and second-hand shops are not recommended. There’s no way to tell whether they’ll do their job in a crash. And the cargo we’re talking about is simply too valuable to risk.
Minnesota has a free car seat distribution program, coordinated by local non-profit and government agencies, where low-income families may get child-passenger restraints at no cost. (Most counties use federal income guidelines to determine eligibility, but the rules vary.) If you’re unable to buy or borrow a safe restraint, then learn where your nearest distribution center is, and work with their staff to get the right safety seat for your child.
If you have a child passenger seat already, and want to make sure it’s installed correctly, there’s a way to do that.  Car-seat clinics exist all over the state. Call the non-emergency number for your local fire or police department to find one near you, and let an expert show you how to arrange that restraint so it can do its job.
There is also a “Buckle Up Kids” booklet online that contains everything you need to know about child passenger restraints. The photos are clear, the instructions are simple, and they cover restraints for infants, convertible restraints that face forward or backward, built-in restraints, and several types of boosters — and the multiple ways to install each of them.
There are tips in this booklet on air travel and suggestions for keeping kids safe in pick-up trucks and recreational vehicles. And if you’re a cut-to-the-chase kind of person, you’ll like the “Most Common Child Passenger Safety Mistakes” on page 26. That will give you a good place to start reading.
If you have children who travel with you, you’ll probably learn something valuable from this booklet. And if you don’t, you probably know someone who will.
Minnesota law requires children less than eight years old and under 4-feet-9-inches tall to ride in a federally approved child-safety seat or a booster seat. But the most important reason you’re using a safety seat is to protect your child in the event of a crash — and that’s the reason to do it right.
The DPS Office of Traffic Safety provides all the information you need to make the right choices. So read up — and put your children among the safest kids on Minnesota roads.

Remembering Fallen Heroes During National Police Week

Posted May 11, 2015
In 1962, President John Kennedy signed a proclamation designating May 15 Peace Officers Memorial Day. Decades later, an annual memorial event in Washington D.C. is organized by a committee of the 322,000-member Fraternal Order of Police and attended by tens of thousands of law enforcement officers from every state, the commonwealths, the U.S. Military, and federal agencies such the FBI, NSA and Secret Service.
National law Enforcement Officers Memorial at night
Photo 1: The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial
at night. The Thin Blue Line is created by a laser and
it represents all peace officers, in every agency,
everywhere in the world. ​
Minnesota State Patrol Troopers National law Enforcement Officers Memorial
Photo 2: ​MSP Trooper (now Sargeant) Ruben Marichalar (left) and
Trooper (now Captain) Mike Wedin stand watch at the National
law Enforcement Officers Memorial in D.C.  Officers stand watch
for 24 hours during National Police Week. Each flower
within the star represents an officer who died in
the line of duty during the previous year.
Thousands of family members and loved ones of deceased officers also attend the ceremony along with law enforcement representatives from around the world. Last year’s ceremony was attended by police from England, Spain, Ireland, Italy, Australia and other countries.
The week that includes May 15 is always Police Week, when ceremonies across the nation honor the officers who lost their lives in the line of duty during the previous year.
Minnesota State Patrol Trooper Sgt. Ruben Marichalar serves on the National Memorial Committee. He and a group of volunteers from Minnesota help organize a day of events in Washington D.C. that includes a candlelight vigil, the 20th annual “Law Ride” for motorcycle officers, a special Blue Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and professional entertainment the likes of Marc Anthony, Lee Bryce and Aretha Franklin.
The Law Enforcement Memorial Service on May 15 begins at 11 a.m. on the west side of the U.S. Capitol building and includes a reading of the names of every police officer who died in the line of duty during 2014. There are 131 names this year, and they include Officer Scott Patrick of the Mendota Heights Police Department, who was shot during a traffic stop in July. Patrick’s name is etched on the wall at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial a few blocks from the Capitol, where the annual wreath-laying ceremony takes place immediately following the memorial service.
In Minnesota, several memorial observations take place during Police Week. In Duluth, the 26th Annual Memorial Prayer Breakfast will feature guest speaker St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin. The Rochester Ecumenical Service and Ceremony includes a reading of all 274 names of officers killed in Minnesota since recordkeeping began — including eight State Patrol troopers.
The Minnesota Law Enforcement Memorial Association (LEMA) annually hosts a May 15 "Standing of the Memorial Guard" event at the Peace Officers Memorial on the State Capitol grounds. Officers from across the state volunteer to post guard around the memorial beginning at 8 p.m. on May 14 and continuing until 7:30 p.m. on May 15.  Officers stand one hour of the vigil while a LEMA Honor Guard Officer walks the Thin Blue Line. This guard is changed every 20 minutes with a precision rifle inspection by the Sergeant of the Guard.
An especially poignant part of the Memorial Guard event involves police K9 handlers with their partners sitting quietly in memory of fallen officers and several animals lost on the job — in many cases, while protecting the lives of their handlers. The K-9 officers are on guard during the day on May 15. For images of the memorial service, go to the Minnesota LEMA gallery page.
Law enforcement officers, family members of peace officers serving and deceased, and other civilians are invited to visit the memorial and observe the ceremonial events. More information is available on LEMA and Fraternal Order of Police websites.

Property Acquisition Hazard Mitigation: the Best Thing You Hope You’ll Never Need

Posted May 7, 2015
Don’t let the title stop you.
Admittedly, “Hazard Mitigation” is one of those bureaucratic expressions that sounds as if it applies to someone else. Certainly not you. The hazards in your life amount to rush-hour traffic, airborne illness, and maybe a skateboard left on the basement steps — nothing that needs to be mitigated.
​Photo: Flooding preparation in Rainy Lake, Minn. in 2014.
The dictionary says: to make less severe, serious or painful.”  But it can get more specific. The Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division (HSEM) is in the mitigation business. To them, mitigation means reducing the negative effects of natural disasters. That can mean getting people and their property out of the way of raging rivers, falling rocks, rising lakes and other natural catastrophes.
But it’s not particularly bureaucratic. There is some paperwork, but at HSEM, hazard mitigation is a topic of lively discussions. It’s a very hands-on, people-focused process, carried out by folks who know how to administer the grants and complete the forms. Mitigation helps turn potential disasters into win-win settlements. At HSEM, it creates safer futures.
One of the very successful mitigation efforts in Minnesota is the property acquisition program, explained beautifully in this DPS video about a couple whose cabin on the Kettle River fell victim to flooding. Executed in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Minnesota DNR, the program provides a way to prevent repetitive flood damage when a river or lake decides to take back territory it may not have touched for years.
Water can be unpredictable. Nationally, floods claim nearly 200 lives every year and force 300,000 people from their homes. In Minnesota, they kill more people than any other weather event; 15 have died in floods since 1993.
We think of flooding as a spring event, but disaster history tells another story. In fall of 2010, southern Minnesota floods forced hundreds of people from their homes and caused millions of dollars in damage. In 2011, our fourth-snowiest winter on record was followed by a super-wet spring, and our rivers went wild. The Red, Minnesota, St. Croix, Mississippi and all their tributaries started taking out people’s homes and possessions, leaving wreckage in their wake. In 2012, it was Duluth and northeast Minnesota, along with some east-central counties, that took the hit. In 2014, 37 counties and three tribal governments received federal and state assistance to recover from July storms, floods and mudslides.
We don’t know when or where floods will happen, and bodies of water behave differently over long periods. Your home may have been perfectly safe when it was built, but several years of unpredictable weather patterns, floods and erosion can change that.
And so the property acquisition program exists.  It has generated success stories all over Minnesota. In Zumbro Falls, it saved homes and created public green space along the beautiful Zumbro River.  In Moorhead, it moved a pumping station that provides clean drinking water to 40,000 people. In Wadena, Austin, Montevideo and other Minnesota towns, residents are living more safely and comfortably because of property acquisition help from HSEM.
For information on the program, visit DPS or FEMA online. You’ll hope you never need to use the information you find there — but you’ll sleep better knowing what “mitigation” can mean to a Minnesotan.

And Arson Is My Problem…Because?

Posted May 4, 2015
The U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) sponsors “Arson Awareness Week” annually — and annually, many people ignore it. They think they’re already aware of arson. They know what it means. Isn’t that good enough?
Their information comes from a number of sources. There are arsonists on television who use fire to camouflage criminal behavior. (Note: It seldom works, on TV or in real life. Fire investigators are just that good.) Arsonists are in the news, too. They’re criminals who set fire to the homes of people they dislike. Sometimes arson fires are part of an insurance scam. Or a prank that gets out of hand. Yes, we’re plenty aware of arson. We know all about it.
Arson Hotline sign in front of an arson fire site
Photo: Added up, all types of arson cost Minnesotans
more than $6 million in 2012 alone. ​
 But what we “know” isn’t necessarily accurate. As Arson Awareness Week begins (May 3–9) the State Fire Marshal Division shares responses to some common attitudes about arson.
Arson is a problem? Where?
Pretty much all over — even here, among the Minnesota Nice. Thirty-seven of Minnesota’s 87 counties experienced more than five incendiary, or purposefully set, fires in 2013. That’s 42 percent of our counties. The highest numbers were in heavily populated counties (Hennepin: 162) and the extremely rural areas (St. Louis: 51). Only seven counties had no arson fires at all, and they’re scattered all over the state. There is no demographic data that warns of a possible arson situation. In short, arsonists are everywhere. That’s a problem.
Arson? Right. That happens on TV.
Not exclusively. In real life, 34,500 intentionally set fires destroyed personal property, businesses and natural resources over the last 20 years in Minnesota. Close to 65 percent of arson fires in 2013 were residential. Vehicle fires run about 12 percent of the total.  Added up, all types of arson cost Minnesotans more than $6 million in 2012 alone. That’s a problem, too.
But it’s not MY problem. It’s a victimless crime; it only bothers insurance companies.
The families of 25 Minnesotans who died in arson fires in the last 10 years might disagree. Twenty-five people in one decade is hardly “victimless.” You might feel a bit victimized if you consider that insurance costs are affected by arson. Or you might lose a valuable community business to arson, or access to school facilities, a church or a shelter…or your only means of motorized transportation. There are plenty of victims; they just don’t make the news as often as victims of other crimes.
Most of this information is available in the State Fire Marshal Division Fire in Minnesota annual report. It’s a real eye-opener if you’re thinking arson doesn’t affect you. And there’s more to know. There are things you can do to prevent arson. And there’s a Minnesota Arson Tip Hotline where observant folks can help fire investigators solve cases.
The 2015 Arson Awareness Week theme is “Accelerant Detection Canines,” and the USFA site has posted a piece about detection dogs. The dogs can detect an arsonist’s chemical tools on the fire scene — and sometimes on the arsonist, as well. It’s a great read.
There’s a lot to know about this topic, and learning about arson might change the way you think about it. That’s the point of Arson Awareness Week — to encourage you to understand this crime for what it is. That kind of understanding helps keep everyone safer.