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Ed Schafer: 'We had to look at the fire and say we've got to let it burn'

Former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer holds a photo of first lady Nancy Schafer (center), with Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens (right) and Elizabeth Dole, president of the American Red Cross, on a flood tour of Grand Forks in 1997. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

One of former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer's most vivid memories in Grand Forks during the Flood of 1997 was just how empty and quiet the city was.

As he watched the moonlight glisten off the floodwaters, Schafer recalled how eerie the city seemed. There were no people, no electricity.

But his most vivid memory is of the fire that engulfed downtown, eventually damaging or destroying 11 buildings on three city blocks.

Because nobody could get into the buildings, Schafer and others made the call to let the fire burn throughout the night until a special unit could make it to Grand Forks.

"We had to look at the fire and say we've got to let it burn," Schafer said. "There's nothing we could do. And that was so hard. Everybody wants to do something. You're trying, and you can't get in there, you can't get the water in there, you can't do anything. We just had to make the call that we have to let it burn and there's nothing we can do about it until morning, and that was awful.

"That was probably one of the hardest things I did in my whole eight years as governor."

Schafer, who served as UND's interim president for six months in 2016, said he sees a town healed today.

"When you're going through the flood fight, there's huge activity, and everybody's arm in arm. You're standing in a community, and all of the family feuds and all of the neighborhood fights and all of that stuff goes away because everybody has this common mission and this common fight against the flood."

— Wade Rupard