AITKIN -- At a forest fire near Flagstaff, Ariz., this year Mark Seger, a fire response leader at the Aitkin DNR office, witnessed 125-foot flames, a situation where there was nothing to do but stand back and watch.
"Eighty-foot Ponderosa pines went up like a Roman candle," Seger said. "After I came back from that one I bought a camera."
Seger, 46, has already worked about 30 days this summer as an equipment manager and ground support unit leader at fires in Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming. One of the fires in Colorado was a Type 1, the rating given to the largest and most complex fires. Seger maintained buses, water trucks, rental vehicles, bulldozers, road graders and fire engines.
His most recent tour of duty was at Encampment, Wyo.
Mark Seger demonstrated the last defense a firefighter might have if trapped in a blaze. The special suit, called a Fireshelter, is made of aluminum foil and fiberglass. Temperatures have been known to reach 160 degrees in the suit. Seger said firefighters who take shelter in the suit are instructed to never get out. "No matter how hot it gets inside it's a lot hotter out there," he said.
To date, more than 1,000 Minnesotans -- including about 20 from the Brainerd area -- have gone west to assist firefighting efforts. Of these 401 are still in the field.
The Brainerd-area contingent has included equipment managers, dispatchers, fire crew members, a co-pilot, several engine bosses and an air attack group supervisor. All are DNR forestry employees. The standard tour of duty is 14 days, though 21-day tours are possible if the need arises.
Seger said the current policy of battling every blaze unless it's in a wilderness area is actually making fire danger worse. That's because what doesn't burn is like fuel waiting to catch fire. Leave enough fuel around and a fire is the eventual result.
"Fire is part of the natural cycle," Seger said. "Right now the (fuel) situation is the worst I've seen. With discretion some of these fires should be allowed to burn."
A fire season like the current one takes its toll on everyone involved, Seger said.
"The conditions are harsh and our resources are running out. We've had to call in the National Guard for transportation and food. That's bad for morale. After four trips I'm burned out and that's common out there. It's pretty hard to re-charge your battery in a week."
A severe fire season is hard not only on firefighters but their families back home, Seger said. "When you get a call that you're being activated that leaves an empty chair at the dinner table. That's hard on any family. Our wives deserve a lot of credit."
Bonnie Bunnell, a dispatcher at the Brainerd DNR office, has already made five trips to the National Interagency Coordination Center in Boise, Idaho, this summer. The center is the hub of all disaster coordination efforts nationwide. Co-workers Bryan Hargrave, Sandy Christiansen, Sue Loss Jeanette Wolmutt have also been to Boise. All are dispatchers who help mobilize firefighters throughout the nation.
All dispatchers work 12-hour shifts beginning at 4 o'clock. In one stretch Bunnell worked 14 straight days. "When the need is there it gets into your blood," Bunnell said when asked what keeps her going. "It's a good feeling to be part of an event where you can help make things work. There's always something going on. When I'm back home I feel I should be out there."
Bunnell said finding enough firefighters has been a problem this year. "We couldn't fill all of the requests we had," she said. "The firefighters aren't there like they used to be. We're all getting older and there are better jobs for young people these days."
Some of the area DNR forestry personnel who have helped firefighting efforts this year include Chris Kobberdahl (equipment manager) and Keith Koehnen (crew member) from the Brainerd office, John Korzeniowski (engine boss), Bob Perleberg (air attack group supervisor), Deb Schlumpberger (dispatcher) and Mike Warzecha (engine boss) from the Little Falls office, Bob Bachman (dispatcher) and Paul Lundgren (crew member) from the Pequot Lakes office and Brian Pisarek (engine boss), Sandy Skinaway (dispatcher), Cal Tuper (spotter) and Chris Wiggins (crew member) from the Aitkin office.
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