Lake of the Woods, MN – The sheriff in Lake of the Woods County said Wednesday he will ask county officials for an ordinance requiring carbon monoxide detectors in fish houses on the big lake.

Sheriff Dallas Block said the deaths of two men over the weekend from apparent carbon monoxide poisoning inside a fish house on the lake has made him want to take some steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The only other such case he knows of on Lake of the Woods was a similar one in 1992 in which two men died. Block then was a deputy sheriff who investigated the case.

On Sunday, brothers-in-law Ronald Dunford, 53, and Daniel Erickson, 47, from Owatonna, Minn., were found dead in their fish house north of Baudette, Minn.

The two men were fishing about one to 1½ miles off the south shore of the lake, near Pine Island, which is near the mouth of the Rainy River, Block said.

The men were last seen eating at a restaurant Friday night near the lake, Block said. He thinks they died as early as early Saturday morning, Block said.

“One of another party fishing quite a ways from them hadn’t seen any movement out of that fish shack, and that caused some people to be concerned,” Block said. The fishermen checked on the too-quiet fish house late Sunday afternoon, found the two men dead and called Block’s office.

When his deputies arrived at the scene about 7:30 p.m. Sunday, “there was the smell of gas fumes, but the heat was out, the pilot light was out, the tank was still open, but was empty, so you would have those fumes smell,” Block said. The fact the propane tank was empty seems to indicate the men had died some time before.

No detector in house

Block thinks a strong wind was the factor, as it was almost 16 years ago to the day, when the two men died in the similar incident on the lake.

“We had a tremendously strong wind on the lake over the weekend,” he said. The fish house was well-vented above the roof, unlike the 1992 case which involved a propane stove vent out the side of the house, Block said. “We are thinking – they didn’t have (the house) banked up – we are thinking maybe the wind came up from underneath the fish shack and blew the fumes back in,” Block said. “It’s almost impossible to tell exactly how this occurred.”

But what concerns him was, in his eyes, one glaring omission: “They didn’t have a carbon monoxide detector, and boy, that is crucial, if you are going to stay overnight on the lake. With the wide-open expanse of the lake, and some of the winds we get, you just never know how that wind will affect your heater. If you have a carbon monoxide detector, it’s going to remove that fear.”

All the resorts that provide fish houses have such detectors in each one, as do most of the commercial renters and providers of fish houses, Block said.

“And now these commercial wheel fish houses have them built right in,” Block said.

Trying for an ordinance

The two cases that each time killed two men in fish houses, in 1992 and last weekend, are the only cases he knows of on Lake of the Woods. “And I’ve been here 34 years,” Block said.

“I’m thinking about going to our county board and seeing if we can’t enact an ordinance for Lake of the Woods County that they would have to have carbon monoxide detectors on fish houses coming on to the Lake,” Block said. “That might be hard for us to enforce on all the private ones. But it certainly will show the concern on our part, and letting them know, I’m sure it will cause people to think about it, that for $20 they could have that safety.”

Block added, “Just the awareness of bringing an ordinance like that would cause people to become more aware of the danger.”

He and his deputies do some checking on fish houses each winter. But like Lake of the Woods, it’s a big thing. “We have 2,000 to 3,000 fish houses on the lake, so it’s pretty difficult,” Block said.

Another idea he’s been “kicking around,” since the two deaths: “We do an inspection for launches, a boat inspection, in the spring. And I’m thinking it might be warranted to start doing fish house inspections before the houses go out,” Block said. “I’m going to talk to our county board and county attorney about it.”

Just as his office inspects resort and other rented fishing launches for safety each spring, Block wonders if his deputies should begin to require inspections each winter of fish houses before they are allowed on the Lake.