By Dan Nienaber
The Free Press
Dozens of firefighters from several departments dealt with below freezing temperatures Thursday as they fought a fire that brought down a Kasota landmark.
Anyone who has been to the new Chankaska Creek Ranch and Winery has seen the large house on the opposite side of Pearl Street overlooking Highway 22. That was the house that caught fire, creating wind-blown blaze that moved quickly through the structure.
Temperatures were around zero degrees as firefighters poured water on the fire, creating large plumes of smoke that were pushed parallel to the ground by a steady wind. The water froze quickly on the ground and in the winery's nearby parking lot, where many of the fire trucks were parked.
Jane Schwickert, the winery's general manager, said she was in her downstairs office when Angie Brown ran down to tell her there was smoke coming from the house sometime before 3 p.m. Brown had been working in the wine tasting room upstairs.
"I ran upstairs and looked out," Schwickert said. "You could see the smoke and within seconds you could see the flames. With this wind and cold, it moved quickly."
Authorities were not releasing any information on the fire Thursday night, so it is unclear if anyone was in the house when it caught fire or if any firefighters were injured.
Schwickert said she knew Ruth Dutler, owner of Jerry Dutler's Bowl in Mankato, lives in the house. So Schwickert had someone call the bowling alley to make sure Dutler was there and not in the house. She was relieved to find out Dutler was at work.
"We were very concerned about that at first," Schwickert said. "There was another person driving by and he actually went up and yelled to see if anyone was inside. It was difficult to stand there and watch and not know if someone was in there."
Firefighters hadn't arrived when Chris Braun drove past the house on Highway 22 and took a picture of flames engulfing the house. He had just left his parents' house south of Kasota and was heading toward St. Peter on the highway when he saw the smoke. Braun thought someone was having a bonfire until he passed the trees blocking his view and saw the fire.
Fire Departments from St. Peter, Cleveland, North Mankato and Nicollet provided support. The North Mankato and Nicollet departments provided air trucks. The Cleveland Fire Department assisted, in part, by running water trucks from the scene to Kasota to be filled at a fire hydrant there. A Le Sueur County sheriff's deputy blocked traffic from entering Pearl Street and a State Patrol trooper shooed away drivers who pulled alongside the highway to watch.
Schwickert said she called the staff scheduled to come into work at 4 p.m. and told them to stay home. She said she was relieved that a semi delivering food supplies to the winery was allowed to pull in.
Grapes used to make Chankaska wines are grown on a hill behind Dutler's house. Schwickert said she didn't know if the grapes would have been damaged by smoke or heat from the fire.