EUREKA -- As the water from the hose splashed back onto his vest, coating him in ice, volunteer firefighter Travis Mehlhaff looked back at what a strange day it had been.
Less than 24 hours after he returned from his vacation in the Bahamas, Mehlhaff, of the Eureka Fire Department, found himself battling a fire 10 miles from Eureka in subzero temperatures.
At about 5 a.m. Jan. 22, a gathering place formerly known as the Hillsview Bar and a nearby shop building caught fire. Rural volunteer firefighters spent more than three hours battling the blaze and protecting nearby property while the temperature hovered around 10 below zero.
The subzero temperatures present many extra challenges for rural firefighters that aren't necessarily issues for fighting a fire in a city, Tim Serr, chief of the Eureka Fire Department, said.
"The greatest challenge is making sure there is enough water available and that it doesn't turn to ice," he said.
Firefighters started circulating the water in the pump while at the station so it didn't freeze at the site, Serr said.
Making sure the equipment worked was the top priority, Mehlhaff said. He didn't have time to worry about how cold it felt, even as ice covered his suit.
"All you can do is work through it," he said.
A firefighter's feet are usually the first body part affected by the snow, firefighter Terry Vinger said.
Winter fire gear is designed to keep most of a person's body warm, but the rubber boots firefighters wear are designed to keep heat out.
That's useful when standing near flames, but not ideal for trudging around when it's minus 10 degrees outside.
The best way to prevent frostbite is simple: Just keep moving, Mehlhaff said.
"You don't have too much time to think about how many pairs of socks you're putting on," he said.
It took about 20 minutes for the responders to get to the fire, That might sound like a long time, Serr said, but considering almost all of the firefighters had to wake up, get dressed, drive to the station house and get in their gear before driving to the fire, which was about 10 miles away, it's actually very quick.
Mehlhaff was about five miles from his home in Eureka after a six-hour drive back from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport when he got a call on his cellphone from the department.
"It's typically a false alarm, so I said ‘All right, I'll pick it up,’ ” he said. "I heard the Hillsview bar was on fire and said 'Well, let's go.’ ”
By the time firefighters arrived, the bar was burned to the ground and the shop was engulfed in flames, he said.
"The goal wasn't to save that structure. It was to protect surrounding structures," Serr said.
While fighting the blaze, trucks had to make frequent trips back to the station to fill up on water since there is no nearby source, Serr said.
"When you are at a fire 10 miles from town with no fire hydrant, you gotta keep driving back to get more water," Serr said.