A wet summer in northeastern Minnesota has been a relief to firefighters who were bracing for a bad fire season in and around the storm-damaged Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
"I don't jump when the pager goes off," said Dave Seaton, training officer for the Gunflint Volunteer Fire Department. "We've been able to relax a little and not be at such a heightened state of awareness."
Seaton said the slow fire season has provided more time for training the department's volunteers, for completing the outfitting of several firefighting boats and for educating property owners about how to reduce fire risk near their cabins by removing extra brush and installing large sprinkler systems.
"It's been nice to do this on our own time instead of rushing it," he said.
The lack of activity in the BWCA has allowed about 350 Minnesotans to be shipped West to battle what's being called the country's worst summer fire season in 50 years.
Although Minnesota remains at some risk for major fires, the state has contributed equipment, firefighters and other personnel. Last week, four 20-person crews returned to Minnesota after 14-day stints in Idaho and Montana, and two more crews were dispatched. Dozens of other employees from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies are also on loan, doing everything from driving fire engines to helping with logistics and public information.
"On any given day (last week), we're looking at about 350 to 375 Minnesotans who are out of the state serving in all capacities," said Jean Bergerson, public information officer for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids. "What we're hearing from folks calling back, either Minnesotans or those with Minnesota connections, is that the fires are far worse than the media have been reporting."
Minnesota has benefited from weather patterns that have resulted in enough rain often enough to lower the fire risk, said Mark Van Every, Superior National Forest spokesman.
That doesn't mean Minnesota can rest easily, said Ellen Bogardus-Szymaniak, fire specialist for the Superior and Chippewa national forests. "Until we get snow on the ground, we're going to be at risk," she said.
Northeastern Minnesota is being watched because of a devastating July 1999 storm that downed millions of trees across nearly 500,000 acres. The dead and dying timber creates a potential tinderbox. And large patches of land have lost their tree canopy, Bogardus-Szymaniak said, which allows the thin soils to dry out faster than usual, often within just two or three days of rain.
Even though Minnesota has loaned resources to the West, Bergerson and others said the state still has plenty of resources.
"We are retaining crews here that were hired for the BWCA and the regulars (fire-fighting crews) that live in the state," she said, adding that most of those sent west have been those hired temporarily for spring and fall fire seasons.
Bogardus-Szymaniak said there have been fires in northern Minnesota this summer, several ignited by lightning. Most have been contained to less than an acre because a combination of early detection and wet conditions kept them from spreading.
Van Every said he would like to think that campfire restrictions in the blowdown area this summer also may have reduced the number of human-caused fires.
Wet, windy weather in late spring, however, kept the Forest Service from conducting controlled burns in certain areas just outside the BWCA, Bogardus-Szymaniak said. "We missed a large burning window because it kept getting too windy," she said.
Minnesota may try to conduct a few controlled burns in September or October, she said, but that depends both on weather conditions and on how great the needs are in the West for continued help from Minnesota.
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