By Bill Hudson

HINCKLEY (WCCO) — The July 1 windstorm that raced across Minnesota and into western Wisconsin toppled 20 percent of the St. Croix State Park’s trees. Now, tens of thousands more conifers and hardwoods are down in forests throughout Pine County — posing a fire risk.

Karl Sieve is the park’s operations supervisor and is overseeing the massive clean-up.

“It (downed timber) will eventually dry out and become a fuel hazard, a huge fire hazard,” said Sieve.

Driving around the closed park gives one a greater appreciation of the widespread devastation. But it’s when you slowly pick your way through the several campgrounds where it becomes downright frightening.

Due to the state shutdown, the park was closed to Fourth of July campers. It no doubt is the reason there were no injuries or deaths, because not a single one of the park’s 217 campsites was spared from falling trees.

“A lot of people are comparing this to the boundary waters blow down,” said Sieve, referring to the July 4, 1999 windstorm that destroyed one-million acres of wilderness.

It is why foresters are so concerned and are racing to clean up the downed timber, or run the risk of wildfires.

Sandy Hinds manages the Hinckley Fire Museum where the story of the tragic 1894 firestorm is kept alive.

“In four hours, 480 square miles of Minnesota burned, six towns burned to the ground as well as portions of four counties,” said Hinds.

At least 420 people were killed in the fire, and a mass grave contains their remains east of town.

Many blame the fire’s ferocity on the massive amount of timber debris left behind by loggers.

“There’s more wood on the ground now than during the great Hinckley Fire when the town of Hinckley burned up. That gives you any sense of what could happen if this fuel is not dealt with,” said Sieve.

So, truck after truck and tree by tree, the cleanup from this latest storm will stretch weeks into months, restoring both beauty to St. Croix State Park and peace of mind to Pine County.

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