The Upper Peninsula - Hiawatha & Ottawa National Forests Out West - FIRE

More than 30,000 interagency fire personnel have been supporting the current wildfire operations in the U.S. and have adapted to the changes presented by COVID-19. Most recently, Mexico joined the effort to assist with area fires in California.  It’s a national and international fight, including National Guard and U.S. Military too.

Upper Peninsula Firefighter works on the Bobcat Fire in Roundup, MT this summer.

Upper Peninsula Firefighter works on the Bobcat Fire in Roundup, MT this summer. Courtesy: R. Brown, USDA Forest Service, Hiawatha National Forest.

Entering Unchartered Territory:

More than 46,000 fires have burned more than 8 million acres in 2020, and that number continues to grow.  Just 60 of those fires are responsible for burning four million acres.

Since July firefighters and personnel from the Hiawatha and Ottawa National Forests have been in that fight, risking their lives to save others and contain wildfires in the western part of the country.

According to Upper Peninsula Fire Management Officer Eric Rebitzke, “Extreme weather and fuel conditions, lightning strikes, dangerous levels of smoke and ash, and a deadly pandemic are putting firefighters in uncharted territory.”

2020 is unlike any other year. Aside from making history in states like Colorado which experienced the largest fire in its recorded history, the 2020 fire season is unprecedented for another reason – the pandemic.

We’ve adapted and pushed on, crews are smaller. They must keep a distance from one another, and a quarantine is required when their assignment is done. It makes a physically and mentally challenging job, that much more challenging. 

National Firefighting Effort:

“The Hiawatha and the Ottawa National Forests are a combined fire management program, which allows both forests to provide a more effective and efficient wildland fire response both locally and nationally,” said Sam Duerksen, Forest Assistant Fire Management Officer.  “We have been supporting the western fires since July with two hand crews (10-person modules) and two wildland fire engines assisting western forests with Initial Attack capabilities and large fire suppression for almost two months.  Personnel are rotated out after 14 or 21 days and replaced with fresh firefighters.”

Throughout any year, the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (under NIFC) establishes Preparedness Levels to ensure that as the fire season escalates and firefighting resources are ready to respond.Rebitzke added, “Locally our program has mobilized over 100 people and various pieces of firefighting equipment to assist with the National Firefighting effort.”

These resources will remain in place until the fire season subsides or the workforce can no longer support a fresh rotation due to seasonal employee commitments (i.e. returning to college).  Once a rotation is complete, many firefighters and personnel quarantine, then sign up for another assignment. 

Firefighters and support personnel from the Hiawatha and Ottawa National Forests continue to assist in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Wyoming. This includes work on the Bobcat, W-5 Cold Springs, Lake, and August Complex wildfires in California and the Brattain and 242 fires in Oregon this year. The crews have worked on various other fires and were successful at keeping the fires small and contained.

The Forest Service utilizes employees from all disciplines to support wildland fire response.  The diversity of skillsets provides the needed assistance in all functions of fire management to safely and effectively respond to these emergencies.

“We have personnel serving in finance, planning, logistics and operations positions.  Some of these positions are: Division/Group Supervisor, Operations Section Chief, Finance Section Chief, Geographic Information Systems Specialist (mapping), Equipment/Time Recorder and Resource Advisor to name some of the roles being filled,” said Duerksen.

The Hiawatha and Ottawa Forests also have individual personnel serving in various fire management and support positions working with Incident Management Teams (IMTs) on some of the larger incidents out west.  More clerical positions are at times being conducted virtually to address the COVID-19 environment, but still just as important in the overall firefighting team. 

Returning from the Fight:

As Hiawatha National Forest personnel return from the fight, some will resume previous duties within the Forest; others will refresh and rest heading back-out west to continue to fight fires.

All are heroes and we thank them and their families.

Rebitzke stated, “In February we began assisting in the southeastern part of the country, and we continue to support the effort. Our firefighters risk their lives every time they answer the fire bell, but this year on top of an extremely active fire year, we are also dealing with the risk of our folks being exposed to COVID-19.”

Doing Your Part:

With so many resources being used to fight wildfires out west it is imperative that everyone take steps to prevent wildfires locally. This includes campfire safety, never using fireworks in the forest, completely extinguishing warming fires during hunting season, crossing chains and using spark arresters. Learn more about campfire safety.

Additional information about the Hiawatha and Ottawa National Forests is available by visiting: or  If you think the job sounds like something for you – 2021 Summer Hiring is also available at:

A large airtanker sits in Billings, MT at the Billings Fire Center awaiting it’s next mission.

A large airtanker sits in Billings, MT at the Billings Fire Center awaiting it’s next mission across the Northern Rockies.  Courtesy:  R. Brown, USDA Forest Service, Hiawatha National Forest.