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Owatonna High School girls soccer coach, Nate Gendron, observes practice last Thursday during the fourth and final day of tryouts at the Owatonna Soccer Complex. The Huskies shared the Big Nine Conference title with Mankato West and Rochester Century last season and return an intriguing blend of talent at each level. (Jon Weisbrod/People’s Press)

Department uses controlled burn to train firefighters

Distinct clouds of thick black smoke rose over the city throughout most of the day on Saturday, and while the Owatonna Fire Department was there in full force there were a few elements missing from the typical house fire: sirens and panic.

After the city acquired the old Naas home on Rice Lake Street East as a part of the purchase the led to the construction of the Daikin Soccer Complex, the former residence opened up a unique opportunity for the police and fire departments.

“When we have vacant buildings that are going to be torn down for future development or any other reason, we like to make them available for training to police and firefighters,” said Troy Klecker, the Community Development director for the city. “Sometimes there are restrictions because there are very few scenarios that lend themselves to safely do a training in town, but this was the perfect situation because the house sat by itself without any immediate neighbors.”

After the home was utilized by the Owatonna Police Department’s SWAT team for drills and procedure practice, the Fire Department took over and began running routine training including search and rescue, pulling hose and setting up ladders. Things really got interesting when firefighters set the house on fire.

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

Four new Owatonna firefighters and three new Ellendale firefighters were able to meet one of their final state requirements for certification at the controlled burn on Saturday. Firefighters must take part in a level 1 and level 2 burn before become certified and coming of the probationary period with their department. (Annie Granlund/People's Press)

“Doing a house burn like that is crucial, it’s really invaluable to our training,” said Ryan Seykora, the department's assistant training coordinator who headed up the training Saturday. “In our training sessions, we try to duplicate what you would actually encounter on a call, and you just can’t really do that without there being an actual fire.”

For other training, Seykora said they use fog machines to fill up a room and reduce visibility for the firefighters, training them to rely on their other senses and communication. Though those trainings are important, Seykora said it does not compare to the actually effects of a fire, what is required to put it out, and a variety of basic things that could easily be overlooked in a typical classroom setting.

“From the camaraderie and team building to the education, the benefits of a controlled burn are endless,” Seykora said. “In this COVID era, where training dollars and opportunities are both limited, to have a unique opportunity like this is priceless.”

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

Ryan Seykora, far right, with the Owatonna Fire Department talks through the next steps of the controlled burn with firefighters on Saturday. The burn begins by setting fires in different areas of the house to give realistic scenarios to the firefighters and ends with a fire started in the basement to burn the structure to the ground. (Annie Granlund/People's Press)

Aside from fine-tuning skills of veteran firefighters, Seykora said the Saturday burn allowed them to fill a final state requirement needed for certification for nine total firefighters – four in Owatonna and three in Ellendale. He said firefighters are required to take part in live burns as a part of the state requirements to become certified, allowing them to better understand the growth of a fire and put their classroom training to the test.

“You can’t fully understand or appreciated what scenarios you may encounter until you encounter them, but these burns really activate all the knowledge and education you’ve gained once your visibility goes,” Seykora said. “You just can’t duplicate these things in the classroom, so trying to get out and get some hands on experience is really crucial for our continued growth as a department.”

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

Also on the property was a shed in the backyard, which the fire department was instructed to burn down per the city's request. (Annie Granlund/People's Press)

Aside from the skills training, Seykora said the live burns are just as important for the overall morale and culture in the department and among the group.

“When you attend these trainings and show dedication and desire to improve yourself, it makes people more confident to go into a call with you,” he said. “There’s a level of trust that gets built for everybody.”

The final element to the burn training Seykora said is a bit more subtle, but pays off greatly in the long run. As the crowd of onlookers continued to grow throughout the day, beginning at 7 a.m. and tapering off around 3:30 p.m., Seykora said the public perception of who the firefighters are and what they do is vital to their ongoing recruitment.

“Something like this is fascinating for people to watch, seeing a house burn down isn’t something that happens every day,” Seykora said, adding that he mailed out more than 100 letters to the nearby neighborhoods to let them know about the burn in advance. “The number of onlookers we had helps create that positive attitude about what we do for the community, and we need that perception. When we have a successful training like we had, it goes a long way to building some confidence in the community.”

aharman / By ANNIE GRANLUND annie.granlund@apgsomn.com 

The former Naas house took more than four hours to completely burn to the ground during a controlled burn that provided ample training opportunities for the Owatonna Fire Department on Saturday. Prior to igniting the final fire, the fire department was able to extinguish several small fires throughout the house. (Annie Granlund/People's Press)

Other than the vibrant orange flames licking the side of the house, the most notable sight in the area on Saturday was the small children whose face lit up as the firefighters geared up and battled the fire. Seykora said if they planted a small seed in one of those kids about going into the fire service, then they've truly done their job.

Once the property is cleaned up, Klecker said the long-term plan is to use the site as additional park space. Eventually, the city hopes to put additional parking for the neighboring soccer complex and a pavilion in the area. 

United Way of Steele County annual campaign goes virtual

Under the leadership of a new president, Annette Duncan, United Way of Steele County is set to start its campaign and be transparent with the community.

The organization is offering a look at their organization's inner workings this week, hosting Zoom panels and meetings, which began Monday and end Friday. The panels provide a space to engage with the community and have a conversation about topics such as education, health and income. Duncan hopes the kickoff will reengage the community.

“To let (the community) know all of the great work that United Way does all year round,” Duncan said. “Also to remind them why it's so important to give to United Way so that we can ensure that everyone in our community has access to the services that they need.”

The virtual kickoff replaces the traditional kickoff, which typically is held at the Steele County Fairgrounds. It’s a chance for United Way to make its pitch to the community and potential donors while sharing information about its partnerships.

Each meeting is only 30 minutes long and intentionally set over lunch time (12:15 p.m. to 12:45 p.m.) to allow for more people to participate. Different panelists will give an overview of how United Way is helping them and the partnered agencies. Expert panelists will be able to respond to questions that were received from the community and explain why funding United Way is so important.

“They are on the front lines, they are the experts in the fields of education, health and income,” Duncan said.

This year’s funding goal is $800,000, according to Duncan. Funds raised from the campaign go back to the community through an allocation process that is completed in the spring. United Way allocates funds to its various partners, such as Community Pathways, Exchange Club center and Crisis Resource center, among other partners.

Throughout the year, United Way has special initiative projects that they work on, according to Duncan. This includes identifying gaps in programs/services and working to address them.

“We understand especially in this COVID climate that some of the gaps that are there are more evident now and so really trying to stay on top of the needs of the community,” Duncan said. “Inclusion, equity and diversity are extremely important to us and everything that we do.”

Duncan is looking forward to hearing from the week’s panelists and seeing the engagement in the community. She also added that the meeting will be recorded with the intention of sharing it with those that were not able to make the meeting. However, Duncan still encourages people to participate now as there is still time to register.

“We are a very transparent organization and we want to make sure everybody knows that when they volunteer, when they donate, any engagement they have with United Way is making a difference to every member in this community,” she said.

Food Fest

In a last minute rush Sunday evening, lines of cars pulled up to the Steele County Fairgrounds to get what may have been their last chance to taste fair food at the drive-thru Food Fest. Fair staff report more than 6,000 vehicles came out during the three-day event. (Annie Granlund/People’s Press)

Charges: Police tase man resisting arrest following burglary, assault

An Owatonna man who assaulted two women and was tased by law enforcement after resisting arrest has been charged in Steele County, according to court records.

Christopher Stephen Prince, 34, is facing two felony counts of burglary, a misdemeanor charge for domestic assault and a petty misdemeanor for possession of drug paraphernalia in connection with an incident that occurred on Aug. 16. According to the criminal complaint, during Prince’s arrest, officers received an additional domestic assault report for an ongoing incident from Aug. 15-16, resulting in an additional charges: Felony terroristic threats and domestic assault by strangulation, and two misdemeanor counts of domestic assault.

According to court documents, Owatonna police were dispatched to a domestic disturbance on the morning of Aug. 16. When they arrived, the victim — a 57-year-old woman — said Prince had kicked in her door and was looking for money. Prince had recently lived at the residence, but was thrown out by the homeowners Aug. 10.

The woman told officers that earlier that morning Prince called asking for $200 of the $600 he had recently given her. When Prince arrived at the house, the woman told officers that she told him to wait outside while she looked for his money. She said she went inside and locked the door behind her.

The woman reportedly told police that when she came upstairs, Prince had kicked the door in and was inside the house. He allegedly began yelling at the woman and pushed her as she stood at the top of the stairs, causing her to start to fall backwards though she was able to catch herself.

Police noted in the report that there was damage to the door on the south side of the home that appeared to be from someone kicking it in.

Located later by police, Prince reportedly tried to walk away from officers, even as they told him he was under arrest. When they attempted to handcuff Prince, he allegedly continued to resist and was warned that he would be tased. He again resisted arrest, was tased and eventually handcuffed, according to the report.

During a search, officers reported finding drug paraphernalia in Prince’s pocket.

After being taken into custody, police learned that a 28-year-old woman reported being assaulted by Prince earlier that day and the day prior.

According to the criminal complaint, the young woman said she was allowing Prince to stay at her home but that they got into an argument. She reportedly told officers that Prince called her derogatory names, tried to take her phone from her and threw her to the ground several times. At one point, she told officers, he kicked her in the chest, then threatened to burn her house down and kill her if she tried to call the police.

Later that night when she was returning home from the store, she reported, Prince came up from behind her and put her in a headlock, choking her. She said Prince also pushed her down her cement steps as she tried to go into the house. Once in the house, she told the officer she locked the doors, but Prince removed her window air conditioning unit and climbed inside. The following day he reportedly pushed her into the kitchen counter while trying to get her phone.

According to the report, the officer observed injuries on the young woman’s chest, back and arms.

Prince was charged for the burglary incident on Aug. 17, and on Aug. 18 for the domestic assault and terroristic threats.

Judge Joseph Bueltel set bail without conditions at $20,000 for the burglary case and $30,000 for the domestic assault case. His next court appearance is set for Sept. 15. On Monday evening, Prince was still in the Steele County Detention Center where he has been since his arrest.