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Fire chief sparks wildfire: Blown-up golf cart ignites flames, controversy in small Northland community

Nov 18, 2021 05:36AM ● By Editor

By Bonney Bowman of KBJR-TV - November 17, 2021

2021 was an historic summer. It was one of the driest on record, with large portions of the Northland in severe and extreme drought. Burn bans were in place and by August, wildfires were sparking around the region.

In the midst of all that, Alborn fire chief Robb O’Bey and his family blew up a golf cart with 30 pounds of tannerite. It happened on the evening of August 14.

According to the DNR investigation, the explosion was so big, it sent one of the wheels flying 180 feet. The O’Beys told DNR investigators a ball of flames also went flying, likely the cart’s gas tank. According to the report, the fire ball landed in what the O’Beys say was a swampy area. They thought it would go out. It didn’t and the flames started to spread.

They called 911, having sparked what would grow to be the 30 acre fire Stoney Brook Fire. It was a tough fight, according to DNR wildfire section manager Paul Lundgren. Their crews were already spread thin.

“Things were burning deep, longer, more efforts - not just on this fire but many fires,” said Lundgren. “We were spending more time, more energy on each fire just because of the overall drought conditions.” 

Over the next couple days, DNR crews joined local departments battling the flames, including Alborn, Grand Lake, and Industrial. Air resources pitched in, working to stop the flames as they spread toward nearby Canyon.

Lungren said they were concerned because it was a “very active fire, in lowland ground, stagnant spruce for the most part that was spreading.” In an interview with the DNR, O’Bey’s wife Kristen appears to blame the rapid spread on a slow response from Alborn firefighters.

“They didn’t give Robb the resources he needed. Literally sat there and did nothing and refused to bring things down. Refused to bring hoses and radios,” she said. According to the incident detail report, the 911 call went out at 8:25 p.m.

The department answered one minute later and had two trucks on the way by 8:31 p.m. They arrived at 8:37 p.m., just 12 minutes after the initial call.

“In my estimation, it’s not a miracle but it’s a slight miracle that it was kept as small as it was,” said a DNR investigator in a recorded interview with the O’Beys. “With the strong south, southwest winds that we were experiencing, it could have been much, much, much larger.”

They got it under control, leaving blackened land and a big bill. The DNR spent $101,671.43 on suppression costs. The flames may have been out, but the controversy was still spreading in this small community.

“Such a dumb thing, gotta cause so much pain and suffering in the community,” said Dale Larson, a life-long Alborn resident who has served on the town board for the last 22 years.

He said they had no idea their fire chief had started a wildfire until an anonymous complaint arrived in early September. His reaction was “disappointment was the first part and then the second thing is that he didn’t come forward and tell anybody,” said Larson. Larson said Alborn firefighter and EMT Stacey Kleiner found the complaint in her mailbox and brought it to community leaders. No one seems to know who wrote it, but a couple weeks later, Kleiner was fired from the department.

“My belief is that it was in retaliation for bringing that complaint forward,” said Larson.

The Joint Powers Board oversees the fire department. It consists of the Alborn fire chief and a member of the New Independence and Alborn Town Boards.  According to their meeting minutes, it was Chief O’Bey who made the motion to terminate Kleiner while also recommending his own demotion. He and the other two members, Kurt Johnson and Mike Ruhland, voted in favor.

“Voting on your own discipline is kind of bizarre,” said Larson.

According to Johnson, O’Bey voting on his own demotion was “a timing issue”. He said it was “a little bit” of a conflict, and said O’Bey could have recused himself.

Johnson wouldn’t explain the reason for Kleiner’s termination, calling it a “personnel issue”. Christopher Simons took over as Alborn fire chief after O’Bey’s demotion. He couldn’t comment on Kleiner’s firing either, also calling it a personnel issue, but said it was not related to the whistleblower complaint.

“Coincidence of timing maybe, but retribution, no,” said Simons.

Kleiner’s termination was also a break in protocol. Typically, removing a member from the department requires a two-thirds vote by the other firefighters. The minutes from the meeting show board members discussed following that protocol but decided against it.

“In personnel issues, once you don’t follow them for one, you don’t follow them for anybody so you might as well throw them away,” said Larson.

Simons was at that meeting and said if the fire department can’t resolve an issue, it’s on the Joint Powers Board to take action. The Alborn firefighters didn’t have the opportunity to resolve the issue. According to members, they never had the chance to vote on Kleiner’s termination and she was not at the meeting to defend herself. After firing her, the board asked her to stay on and train her replacement.

“We were trying to minimize the damage it caused to the department, so we’re not just leaving a big gap,” said Simons.

Larson said Kleiner has retained a lawyer who advised her not to speak to the media.

“I’d like to see her back on the fire department. I think we’re less safe without her,” he said.

O’Bey is still an Alborn firefighter, responding to calls and collecting the annual stipend. Simons said he has confidence in the former chief.

“He was taken out of the chief role, he was taken away from being able to be an officer,” said the new chief. “We’re a small community so I’m not a fan of getting rid of anybody we don’t have to.” 

The DNR cited O’Bey for careless and negligent acts, a $100 fine, and sent him a bill for more than $100,000, the cost of fighting the fire he started. During the interview with the DNR, O’Bey admitted, “after 27 years on the department, I’ve been chief for 17 or 18. I clearly should have known better.” That $100,000 bill should have been bigger. The other departments that responded, Grand Lake and Industrial, both billed the DNR for their costs. O’Bey did not bill the DNR for his department’s efforts to fight his fire. That means the Alborn Fire Department absorbed the cost. It’s funded primarily by property tax dollars.

We reached out to O’Bey for comment but he declined to speak with us.

Chief Simons said he’s now looking to move forward, clarifying policies and procedures so there’s no confusion in the future while working to rebuild that “fire family” feeling.

“I think ultimately it’s just going to take some time and working together for people to see that, hey, we’re not out to get anybody, we’re here for the common good,” he said. 

Time will tell whether the mistrust still smoldering in the Alborn Fire Department can burn itself out.

To see the video version of this story and to read the DNR report and see the Joint Powers Board meeting minutes, follow this link to the KBJR-TV website.

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