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July 3, 2011

Fierce storm injures Wis. campers, kills child

Associated Press

GRANTSBURG, Wis. — A fierce thunderstorm swept through a rural Wisconsin county that was packed with holiday campers, toppling trees that killed an 11-year-old girl, blowing boats ashore and injuring more than three dozen people, officials said Saturday.

The storm moved across Minnesota and Wisconsin on Friday, packing winds approaching 80 mph and hail as large as softballs.

In northwestern Wisconsin's Burnett County, at least 39 people went to hospitals after the storm toppled hundreds of trees and left several thousand utility customers without power. Authorities said most of the injured were treated and released, but three were in critical condition Saturday evening.

Heavy winds upended boats in the area and blew them ashore, while an airport hangar in neighboring Douglas County collapsed onto a single-engine plane. Searches were conducted

The storm came at one of the worst times of the year for rural Burnett County: a summer holiday weekend, when the area's lakes and rivers attract tens of thousands of visitors, said Rhonda Reynolds, a regional director for Wisconsin Emergency Management.

The county population is 17,000 she said, but the long weekend drew an estimated 80,000 visitors to the county about 90 miles northeast of Minneapolis.

"The weekend holiday traffic is complicating things just because of the number of people," she said. "Emergency crews are trying to get access to various areas but with trees blocking roads, and with all the people, movement is restricted."

A news release from Burnett County Emergency Management said the 11-year-old girl from Hinckley, Minn. was killed when lightning struck a tree and knocked it over onto her. Her name was not released.

Utilities scrambled to restore power to tens of thousands of customers. Xcel Energy said nearly 100,000 customers from eastern South Dakota to western Wisconsin lost power at some point, but crews restored power to about 85,000 customers by Saturday evening. The utility said crews would work around the clock until it was back to normal service levels.

The storm moved into southwest Minnesota on Friday afternoon and took nearly six hours to pass through before slipping into northwest Wisconsin, said Matt Friedlein, a National Weather Service meteorologist. The bad weather had moved out by Saturday morning, when skies were clear and sunny with temperatures in the 80s.

Anita Frase, the owner of Bay Park Resort & Campground in Trego, said she and the resort's 300 visitors knew a storm would be coming but they didn't expect it to hit so swiftly and with such intensity.

"About 9 o'clock the winds picked up and within five minutes it was upon us. Those were probably the darkest skies I've ever seen up here," she said, adding that the storm knocked down several trees, with some landing on vehicles. "A lot of people were very nervous. Some of the kids were crying."

Workers were also rattled at a Grantsburg store near the St. Croix River that rents canoes, kayaks and boating gear. Store clerk Aimee Van Tatenhove said the wind was so strong and loud that no one realized a medium-sized tree had fallen into the roof until employees went outside.

There were early reports of missing boaters on the St. Croix River, prompting an urgent search. Burnett County Emergency Management said all canoeists were accounted for by Saturday evening.

In Minnesota, a driver suffered minor cuts when hail the size of a baseball hit a vehicle's windshield, said Meeker County Sheriff Jeff Norlin. Roofs were torn away in several towns.

"Some communities had multiple passes at this storm _ including golf ball-, baseball- and softball-sized hail," said McLeod County Emergency Management Director Kevin Mathews, who said two tractor-trailers were blown off local highways.

Two Minnesota state parks sustained tree damage so heavy that a conservation officer who was making sure no campers were in the area had to abandon his vehicle and hike back out on foot, said Chris Niskanen of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

He urged people to stay out of Camden State Park and St. Croix State Park, which are technically closed because of the state's government shutdown but could still attract campers because they're public land. He cautioned that some trees may have uprooted but gotten hung up tenuously on other trees.

"It's an issue of health and safety," he said. "Since those parks are closed they don't have the personnel to go in and remove (the trees). People need to know there's a danger if they start wandering around."

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