Fire danger is high in most of the state.The Minnesota DNR has placed restrictions on open burning Cook County. Burning permits have been pulled in Thunder Bay, Ontario and the Forest Service is considering placing a ban on campfires in the Superior National Forest. WTIPs Jay Andersen spoke with Gunflint District Ranger Dennis Neitzke about current fire conditions on the forest.
Neitzke:”The snow is gone and the ice is leaving. The water is pretty much run off now so we’re down to what’s known as cure conditions – that means all the grasses and herbatious plant material that was green last summer is now dead. That’s the really flashy fuels that ignite quickly and move a fire fairly quickly. Being that we’re at least a month ahead of schedule in terms of snow melt, run-off, etc., things are dry. It’s probably the earliest we’ve seen in my lifetime and it’s a precarious time because green-up doesn’t typically come until the middle of May. We could see these dry conditions for the next month, month and a half.”
WTIP: Did the rain we had recently do any good or was it not enough?
Neitzke: “That’s actually a pretty good question because the fuels and the grasses we’re looking at right now – what we call one-hour fuels, which means it takes an hour to dry out. So you can have a pretty good rain and an hour later if you’ve got hot, dry winds, it’s dried out again. So the rains that we have, while for that actual moment that it’s raining certainly wets the fuels down but the next day we could be right back into a pretty good fire scenario.”
WTIP: Let’s take a look back a little. We’ve had a number of large fires in the past, are the conditions similar to some of those big fires right now or is this the same time of year we’d normally see these kinds of conditions?
Neitzke: “We’ve had very different kinds of fires. Alpine, Cavity, Red Eye, Famine – those were later summer fires, when the heavier fuels, the bigger stuff was dried out. Those fires burned hotter and deeper. Ham Lake was pretty much this time of year. It was a month later but the conditions were similar. The ice had just gone off the lakes, the snow had melted in the woods and it was that cured fuel – the grasses and stuff that actually carried the fire. So Ham Lake was a flashy fire that burned very fast, burned a lot of acres. It was the largest fire the National Forest ever had, but it didn’t burn very deep. The conditions right now are kind of very similar to the Ham Lake and we all know what Ham Lake did in terms of homes and structures and people evacuations, so it was a very fast, flashy type of fire, very dangerous type of fire.”
WTIP: Because of the early spring I’m sure we’re seeing people coming up here sooner and they’re going to want to go out into the forest. That means, because it’s still relatively chilly, in the evenings and the mornings – where do we stand on the whole campfire issue?
Neitzke: “And those are the conversations we’ve been having quite regularly over the last two, three weeks with our leadership team. We done a lot of practicing in terms of putting restrictions on, we’ve got the communications part of it – we’ve practiced that. I was just on the phone this morning with some of my partners talking about is it time? We’re coming to the conclusion that probably, yes. We’re very close. I’ll just put it that way. Maybe a little caution at this time.”
WTIP: I understand there’ve been fires in the Chippewa National Forest and there are some in Ontario.
Neitzke: “What we’ve done here and on the Chippewa as well is actually taken our fire behavior models, looked at those very closely and actually measured – we’ve done some prescribed fires – and measured fire behavior. Right now the grasses are burning fairly well but it’s going out when it gets to the edge of the woods. But all it takes is that hot, dry wind, that high pressure to come through to change all that, which is why we want to consider restrictions. Yes, we’re dry, but we’re not at that critical point just yet but we’re in the brink”
WTIP: What fire precautions are you taking here?
Neitzke: “As a Forest we’ve brought on quite a few resources. A type-one air tanker – that’s the one that loads 2,000 gallons of retardant – we’ve got that sitting in Brainerd. There’s the 215’s – we’ve got those all on board and fired up. We’ve got a type-one helicopter which holds 2,000 gallons as well, plus some medium ships within the state. They’re having some little bit larger fires west of here right now, so they’re pre-positioned right now over there but we have brought those on, everything is up and running right now, we’re considering pre-positioning more forces and we’re hiring our seasonals a little earlier this year and bringing those on board and we’re staffing to the conditions. So we’re trying to prepare. We’ve got all the radio systems up and we’ve tested those and as you say we’re earlier this year and we’re trying to get ready earlier”
In closing Neitzke added these words of warning:
“If you feel like it’s cold or if you feel like boy, it’s such a nice day I need to go out and have a campfire – please, please, please, please be extra cautious. We’re considering fire restrictions, but whether or not we put the fire restrictions on, people need to be very cautious anyway. Don’t necessarily wait for us to tell you that you can’t have a campfire. Please use every caution you can if you decide to have a campfire in your backyard or a campfire in a campground -- whatever you do just use extra caution. It’s going to be dry.”