Minnesota National Forests support western fire effort

Whether within one crew or fire operations across the country, it takes a team to manage wildfire suppression efforts. Minnesota National Forests, the Superior and Chippewa, along with natural resources agencies across the country are ensuring the national fire suppression effort has adequate staff and resources. 

Tony Harding, Assistant Zone Fire Management Officer for the West Zone of the Superior, has had a busy summer assisting in coordinating employees coming and going on internal and external fire efforts since the first 2020 fire on the Superior in mid-April.  The Superior experienced one of the longest dry stretches in history through spring and summer.  As soon as rain came in northern Minnesota hot and dry conditions across the western US pushed the nation into wildfire preparedness level 5 (PL5) on August 18. This meant that several geographic areas were experiencing major incidents that had the potential to exhaust all agency fire resources and at least 550 crews were committed nationally to fire efforts.  As of mid-September, the country remains at PL5 and over 31,000 firefighters are deployed to fire suppression efforts across the country. 

Currently (as of 9/15/2020) the Superior and Chippewa National Forests have assigned approximately 15% of their total workforce (56 and 14 employees, respectively) to support fire efforts in the states of California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, and Utah.  Since fire doesn’t discriminate by land ownership wildland fire operations are interagency by nature.  The State of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources also sent 51 employees to support the efforts out west.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal partners, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service provided large portions of their Minnesota workforce with a total of 38 employees.

Supporting such a large effort takes individuals acting in a variety of roles.  On the ground and air operations crews make up a big part of the effort with roles ranging from Firefighter to Tree Faller to Helicopter Manager.  There are also many individuals filling roles in logistics, planning, finance/administration, command, dispatch, and prevention and investigation. 

Many of those providing support from Minnesota are in overhead or initial attack roles.  Employees put their normal jobs on hold to assist in the fire efforts in a detail role.  Jason Butcher, Superior National Forest Aquatic Biologist recently returned from a fire detail, which he tries to do annually with a crew, module, or engine in support of national fire efforts.  He said that this is the first time in several years that he’s contemplating being available for a second detail, since it’s been so busy for primary fire folks.

Other Superior employees work in fire throughout the year like Julie Baxter, Fuels Technician with the Superior.  Julie was recently on a fire detail as a Task Force Leader trainee on the Cameron Peak fire in Colorado.  She was on the northeast side of the fire ensuring local structures were prepped when the wind shifted, putting her and five other firefighters directly in the line of oncoming fire.  She relayed that they burned out a safety circle and waited for several hours while the fire burned over them before they were able to safely leave to meet up with the rest of their task force.  “I have been working on fire for 13-14 years and this was the closest I have been to burning out my safety zone and having the thought of deploying my fire shelter in my head, as others I know have”. 

Whether at home or on detail, employees have been staying at a level of preparedness and availability for many months.  Everyone involved in the effort is committed to ensuring its success as part of the team, “They keep going, keep a level head, and support each other.  Some people are out on their second or third 14-day detail out west,” Tony said.  Julie will be making herself available tomorrow to go back out, “They need people,” she said.

The public can use the InciWeb map (https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/) to monitor the ongoing status of wildfire conditions across the western United States.

Firefighters prepare structure for oncoming fire on Cameron Peak fire in CO.  Credit: Julie Baxter

Firefighters prepare structure for oncoming fire on Cameron Peak fire in Colorado.  Credit: Julie Baxter

Smoke from the Cameron Peak fire in Colorado obscures the night sky.  Credit:  Julie Baxter

Smoke from the Cameron Peak fire in Colorado obscures the night sky.  Credit:  Julie Baxter