Minnesota in the age of smoke and fire
Photo by Nicole Selmer/U.S. Forest Service.
In hot, dry conditions with high winds and ample fuel, wildfire moves faster than you can run or drive. It envelops you like a dragon swallowing an unlucky knight or maiden. You keep running until the oxygen is sucked from your lungs, unable to scream at what comes next.
The Cloquet-Moose Lake fires of 1918 stand as the deadliest in Minnesota history. Survivors described fleeing to the river for safety, only to find raccoons, moose, deer, and birds diving into the river alongside them. One mother bear was burned so badly that flesh fell from her bones as she slumped into the churning water. Her doomed cubs clung to her smoldering fur.
It was the Garden of Eden in reverse: people and animals driven together by hellfire, living briefly in terrified harmony.
I paraphrase this story from Curt Brown’s excellent 2018 book “Minnesota, 1918: When Fire, Flu, and War Ravaged the State.” The grim tale might have stayed in my mind’s dusty bin of trivia until I read about a similar story, involving humans, that happened in Maui just last month. There, more than 100 died and another 1,000 remain missing after a historic early August wildfire leveled the pre-colonial Hawaiian capital of Lahaina.
The horrors of wildfire, once rare, now threaten more frequently in more places. Are we ready for what’s coming?
Summer of smoke
This summer in northern Minnesota felt like smoking a pack of Winston reds from Duluth to Dubuque in a 1990 Chevy Cavalier. (Trust me on this one). Simple tasks like gardening or walking weighed heavy on my chest amid frequent haze and air quality alerts.
The smoke comes from Canada, where massive fires started burning last spring. They won’t stop until nature snuffs them out, perhaps not for several more weeks. This year’s fires scorched more than 52,000 square miles of Canadian wilderness. That’s the highest ever and six times higher than average. Vast columns of smoke rose into the atmosphere before descending into the United States with every cold front.
The results shocked the senses. The Midwest and East Coast saw rare “Code Purple” alerts and first-ever “Code Maroon” air quality alerts from the National Weather Service. Big cities like Chicago and New York became ensconced in apocalyptic smog.
Minnesota experienced frequent air quality alerts this summer, mostly in the “Orange” range — hazardous for sensitive groups — but also a record ten “Red” alerts, hazardous for anyone who breathes. The problem was significant enough to prompt demands for worker protections from wildfire smoke.
Occasional haze from western and Canadian fires is nothing new, but the frequency is rising, said Bob Conzemius, a private sector meteorologist based in Grand Rapids, Minn.
“With climate change there can be a lot of surprises,” said Conzemius. For instance, he said Minnesota’s weather is changing but hasn’t warmed that much.
“That hides the effect for us locally, but other regions have warmed up faster. The northern parts of Canada are warming. More vegetation grows, and a longer season is more favorable to wildfires. They run across northern Canada where there really isn’t much for fire suppression.”
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Officials with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources observe that fire season is expanding here, too. Spring and fall have always been busy, but drier conditions now push fire risks well into the summer.
For rural Canadians, the smoke is less concerning than the fires themselves. For weeks, massive uncontrolled blazes threatened Yellowknife, capital and largest city in the Northwest Territory, forcing the city’s evacuation. Though initial efforts to defend Yellowknife proved successful, fear of a flare-up keeps people from returning home. Meantime, smaller villages and rural homes remain in peril.
Once, about 15 years ago, I saw a CL-215 flying just above the tree line over the lake near my home. The water bomber flew so slowly that the twin-engine yellow plane — 65 feet long, with a 29-foot-tall tail and almost 94-foot wingspan — seemed to defy physics.
The spectral image still haunts my dreams.
It’s hard to watch stories of today’s wildfires without imagining fires in the forests that surround my home in rural Itasca County. Northern Minnesota is home to the Superior and Chippewa National Forests, Boundary Waters wilderness, and vast tracts of woodlands governed by state, federal and tribal authorities. What stops this place from going up next?
Of course, fires happen here. The 2007 Ham Lake Fire burned 75,000 acres, and the 2011 Pagami Creek fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness burned almost 93,000 acres. But these fires happened in relatively remote areas, only infringing on the edges of population centers.
Wildland firefighters say they can handle a drier, warmer future. They believe Minnesota is better positioned than most states to protect rural communities from the destruction seen elsewhere.
Darren Neuman is a wildfire aviation supervisor for the state Department of Natural Resources. He coordinates the state’s aerial attack on fires in cooperation with federal and tribal agencies. Minnesota’s aggressive, coordinated approach to wildfire distinguishes it from many states, where it is more common to let fires burn until they threaten people or property.
“From the perspective of the DNR, we work to keep fires small by attacking them quickly,” said Neuman.
Throughout Minnesota, four permanent air bases and eight permanent helicopter bases deploy fire suppression from the sky. Another dozen temporary bases are called up during emergencies. The DNR uses a wide variety of state-owned and contracted aircraft, but their most prevalent aerial weapon is the Fire Boss.
The Fire Boss is an airplane that can quickly scoop up 800 gallons of water from any body a mile in length and six feet deep. Any lake, river or pond might do, making the airplane a relentless weapon against fire.
Fire Boss equipment is built in Minnesota by Wipaire, Inc., of South St. Paul. Their floats and scooping mechanisms are then installed on Texas-made Air Tractor planes using Pratt & Whitney engines manufactured in Canada. These airplanes have become a huge part of the fire aviation industry across the world, especially in North America, Australia and Europe.
“We’ve seen rapid increase in the awareness of threat of fire, said Stephen Johnson, global sales director for Wipaire. “We talk about fire years, not just fire seasons now. In the past, the U.S. and Europe had (the) same fire season, then it would flip for Australia in the winter. Now, fire season can start in January in Texas and end in November in California.”
The $2.5 million price tag might seem hefty, but the advantage of the Fire Boss is actually its efficiency and affordability compared to larger, older planes that once dominated the industry. Twenty-eight Fire Boss planes are in service in the United States, with 155 in use around the world.
The Minnesota interagency fire base adjacent to the Range Regional Airport in Hibbing received $6 million in state funding this year. The money will upgrade its runway and support facility. A similar funding request for the Brainerd fire base is slated for next year. Both air bases will support Fire Boss airplanes operated by the Minnesota DNR.
The Wipaire officials describe Washington and Minnesota as two states with highly aggressive fire suppression strategies. It is perhaps fitting that these planes are built here.
“South St. Paul, Minnesota, is the epicenter of the world’s most efficient fire fighter,” said Johnson.
Minnesota’s fire fighting strategy has proven successful in the past, but will be tested like never before in coming years.
Trial by fire
Travis Verdegan, a predictive services coordinator for the Minnesota DNR, analyzes the factors that feed wildfire, such as deadfall trees and moisture levels, to help crews anticipate the behavior of fires once they start.
Verdegan closely studied the deadly 1918 wildfires in northern and central Minnesota, and he’s confident in the DNR’s ability to prevent something like that from happening again.
“The nature of the drought in those years is not that much different than modern times,” said Verdegen. “The circumstances and the tools to fight the fire are what’s different now.”
The tools he describes sprung from the disaster a century ago.
On Oct. 12, 1918, Minnesota’s worst recorded wildfire killed about 550 people and destroyed several towns and rural communities. Extreme drought coupled with sustained high winds turned a landscape comprised of logging slash piles and dying trees into a fire bomb.
The fire destroyed the city of Cloquet, a wood and paper mill town built on a river of the same name. There’s strong evidence that a spark from a train bound for Hibbing may have started the blaze.
Hibbing is an iron mining town located about 70 miles north of Cloquet. Known then as the “Richest Village on Earth,” Hibbing boasted a robust police and fire service paid for by progressive taxes on the valuable iron ore mines around the town. It was controversial at the time, considered corrupt by the mining companies, but proved useful in the end.
Like the whole region during the early 20th century, Hibbing floated in a sea of dried wood slash, grass and brush left behind by a generation of clear cut logging.
Fire threatened Hibbing and other Iron Range towns that same day in 1918, but none succumbed to the winds and flames that claimed Moose Lake, Kettle River and Cloquet.
That’s because Hibbing fended off the fire. Its well-equipped fire department, National Guard unit and more than 100 volunteers saved the town from potential destruction. They did what firefighters routinely do today to save people and property from wildfires. They dug trenches, formed fire lines and attacked flare-ups from a vast network of rural roads and railroad beds.
That’s one of the reasons, even amid today’s terrible stories, that fire fighters believe they can defend the northern half of Minnesota from disaster.
Ultimately, roads and resources help protect Minnesota’s forests and cities from wildfire. Many of our state’s forests are denser, but are also wetter and flatter than out west. That limits the ability of fire to spread. A sprawling network of rural roads allows firefighters more access to hot spots. Sophisticated air attacks can reach remote areas and new drone technology has improved fire reconnaissance.
But new challenges will arise. As northern forests transition from boreal to mixed deciduous (pines to leafy), there will be a period of significant deadfall. If that’s accompanied by dry conditions and high winds, the risk of an all-time fire exists.
I asked Verdegen if he felt we might experience something like the 1918 fires again.
“I feel fairly comfortable with the future,” said Verdegen. “Knowing that we’ve experienced drought and we’ve experienced these weather events in the past that resulted in these events. If we experience a drought that is hotter than this year, we’ll be ready.”
The state might have the necessary equipment and strategy, but they’ll also need trained personnel.
“Not many of our firefighters were around in 1918,” joked Verdegen. “Helping people understand the history and what that might mean for firefighting today is a constant.”
The worst wildfires on European soil in years have been burning all summer in Greece. Johnson, from Wipaire, said agencies there are using the Fire Boss in a novel way. On red flag days, Greek firefighters deploy fully loaded planes into the air at all times for even faster response time.
Notions of loaded fire suppression planes flying in formation reminded me of old Cold War movies like “Fail Safe” and “Dr. Strangelove,” where B-2 bombers stand ready to fly into Russia at a moment’s notice. Occasional fire fighting might be a normal part of life on Earth, but constant fire suggests something more like war.
Fear of war holds ancient power over parents. The young want to fight but the old know the cost. My son Henry recently registered for selective service, a rite of passage for American men that prompts thoughts of armed conflict.
The same week, he also registered for a wildland firefighting course as part of his college natural resources program. In a few months my son will be qualified to fly into the mouth of these growing firestorms to protect what he loves the most: forests and people who live near them. People like us. He’s considering it.
The draft doesn’t scare me. Instead, I imagine my oldest son holding back a wall of infinite flames for the rest of his life. Future generations huddle nose-deep in the blackened waters behind him.
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