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‘It’s up to nature’: Pilots, ground crews ready for wildfire season

With April giving way to May and warmer temperatures finally on the horizon, it won’t be long now. Occasional grass fires are drawing firefighter response in the area and burning restrictions set by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are creeping northward.

Pilot and planes at MNDNR tanker base.
Fire Boss pilot Mike Dornan of Dauntless Air stands on the wing of his firefighting aircraft Tuesday, May 3, 2022, at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources airtanker base at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. Dornan has been a pilot for 43 years.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
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BRAINERD — Walking and waiting and walking some more — that’s how Mike Dornan spent his time Tuesday, May 3, at the airtanker base at Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport.

The 65-year-old Fire Boss pilot is ready for liftoff whenever he gets the call to help tame a wildfire from the air. But this year, he’s starting to get a little antsy.

“We’re just waiting for a fire,” Dornan said while standing next to his plane. “We pre-flight every day, make sure it’s all ready to roll. But then it’s up to nature.”

Dornan and the other pilots, of course, aren’t hoping for wildfires — capable of destruction of the environment, property and even life on a massive scale. They just know the blazes will come, as they inevitably do each Minnesota spring when the snow melts away from last year’s dormant and dry vegetation.

And with April giving way to May and warmer temperatures finally on the horizon, it won’t be long now. Occasional grass fires are drawing firefighter response in the area and burning restrictions set by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are creeping northward.

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Those who fight fires on the ground are ready to roll, too, having spent the winter months training.

“We’re typically quite busy with preparing for that next season ahead, completing training, physical fitness testing, things like that will occur starting in January and wrapping up ahead of the fire season,” said Leanne Langeberg, public information officer with the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center, during an April 27 phone interview. “So our firefighters understand the condition that Minnesota is under every spring when that snow melts and the snow-free areas have drier vegetation.”

That training, which follows standards set by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, means wildland firefighters are prepared to battle blazes wherever the need is greatest and with partners including federal agencies to state and tribal governments.

Last year, extreme drought conditions in the state prompted a particularly active fire season, which extended through the summer months and resulted in 2,040 fires and nearly 70,000 acres burned. That included the Greenwood fire in the Superior National Forest, which ultimately scorched 26,797 acres.

Firefighters monitor the Greenwood fire Aug. 26, 2021
Firefighters monitor a defensive fire on the southwest side of the Greenwood fire Aug. 26, 2021.
Contributed / Superior National Forest

The average for the state, based on DNR wildfire data between 1996 and 2021, is 1,668 fires burning 38,000 acres.

“Fire is not uncommon within the state of Minnesota, and it really is dependent on those weather conditions and patterns. So when you think about the drought that built up and how that contributed to the dryness, and then the weather systems where we had more drier days throughout, and then the activity with lightning strikes that can happen throughout the summer months — if you don’t have the precipitation to follow up to help cool those hotspots down, that’s kind of what we were experiencing last year with wildfire activities,” Langeberg said. “ … We support where the need is greatest, so last year, the need was great in Minnesota.”

Thus far, this spring is calmer, Langeberg said, thanks to cooler weather. As of last week, the fire center recorded 61 wildfires this spring burning approximately 900 acres.

“Minnesota is in a much better place this spring wildfire season than we were last year at this time, and that is because of the heavier snowpack that was received in northern Minnesota and that more gradual, progressive snowmelt that we’re seeing this year,” Langeberg said. “ … Low level drought conditions still persist throughout the state, and we’re monitoring those transitions. It’s all dependent on the precipitation and those drying events that can happen, like we saw last summer.”

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Pilot and planes at MNDNR tanker base.
Fire Boss pilot Mike Dornan shares his knowledge on fighting fires from the air Tuesday, May 3, 2022, alongside his plane at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources airtanker base located at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

A pilot for 43 years, Dornan’s flown fixed wing aircraft all over the world, but working as a team with an air traffic controller and wildland firefighters on the ground in Minnesota is something he really loves. As a contractor with the state from Dauntless Air, an aerial firefighting company, Dornan is typically based in Hibbing. Besides Brainerd, the Hibbing site is one of two other permanent airtanker bases in the state, with the third in Bemidji. But lakes are still frozen up north, and Dornan’s plane is reliant on scooping water to battle blazes.

“They have really good air attacks here in Minnesota. Minnesota is good at scooping,” Dornan said, aircraft and firefighting terminology rolling from his tongue like second nature. “So they’re pretty well known all across the United States. They send their people all over. … I like working in Minnesota. They’re all good people. I get along with everybody.”

In a typical year, Dornan may travel to a variety of locations across the United States. Last year, however, amid the unusually active fire season in the state, he didn’t leave Hibbing. He helped fight the Greenwood fire, which closed the Boundary Waters Canoe Area for the first time in 45 years.

“The air traffic controller, he’s telling you what to do. … He has the plan in his head. Sometimes I understand it, and sometimes you don’t. And a big project fire like the one we had last year in the Superior forest there — it was huge,” Dornan said. “So I don’t know what they were doing, we were just going where they told us. You know, you couldn’t see the other end of the fire, it was so bad.”

Pilot and planes at MNDNR tanker base.
Sandie Youngblom, Brainerd airtanker base manager, chats Tuesday, May 3, 2022, with pilot Mike Dornan about wildfire season in Minnesota. The base at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport is one of three permanent bases in the state.
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Sandie Youngblom — a well-known face at the Brainerd base who recently transitioned from her seasonal position to one as the full-time, year-round airtanker base manager — ensures Dornan and the others are doing their jobs safely and directs them where they need to fly when a tactical aircraft request comes through the dispatch center.

Fire season in Minnesota generally runs from March 15 through June 15, with autumn sometimes serving up fire-friendly weather as well. While this year’s season is noticeably slower than last year, Youngblom said they’ve been told to prepare for another potentially busy July and August. The Climate Prediction Center released its three-month outlook for June, July and August, indicating another warm and dry summer is waiting in the wings.

Most of the United States is likely to see above-normal temperatures, including all of Minnesota. The lakes area southward has a higher chance than the northeastern region of the state. And most of the state is leaning toward below average rainfall.

Does that mean drought-like conditions will prevail for a second summer running? It’s too early to know for certain, but the wet spring thus far is more typical than last year, when snow cover left early and didn’t return.

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No matter what the future holds, Youngblom said she and the crew are ready for whatever lies ahead.

“It’s being a part of something that you feel good about. Like, ‘Hey, we saved assets.’ We’ve saved houses, we’ve saved farmland, you know,” she said. “Like last year, it felt good to help put out these fires, because it was a rough year for everybody. The ground firefighters were exhausted, we were exhausted. It’s just a good feeling to be able to be a part of that in the state of Minnesota.”

Campfire safety

People are the cause of 90% of wildfires and grass fires in the state of Minnesota, according to the DNR.

Whether in a state forest or in the backyard, campfires should be constructed and maintained with safety in mind. Use a designated fire ring or build a campfire in an area cleared of combustible materials 5 feet in all directions around the fire. Campfires must be 3 feet or less in diameter and not more than 3 feet in height.

Building and putting out a campfire

  • Think before striking. Check the burning restrictions for the area before lighting a campfire. View statewide fire danger and burning restrictions at bit.ly/382A8jZ .
  • Select a level spot a safe distance away from trees, low overhead branches, shrubs, dry grass, or logs to prevent the fire from escaping, and clear all combustibles within 5 feet.
  • Have a shovel and water available at the campfire site for extinguishing campfires.
  • Supervise the fire at all times. Even a light breeze could cause the fire to spread.
  • Extinguish the campfire with water using the "drown and stir" method.

Residential landscape debris burning

Residential landscape debris burning of dead vegetation is allowed during certain times of the year and in certain parts of the state. However, people should check with their local fire station or DNR Forestry office before burning. Burn permits are required whenever there are less than 3 inches of snow cover. During dry periods, the DNR will suspend burning altogether.

The DNR recommends composting as an alternative to debris burning.

Before getting started, obtain a burning permit from a DNR forestry office, any fire warden or purchase online at bit.ly/3FbS7AO . After obtaining the necessary permits, ensure the local municipality does not restrict burning. Burning without a permit is a misdemeanor offense and has a maximum penalty of up to 90 days in jail, a $1,000 fine or both.

How to safely burn landscape debris

  • Landscape debris piles must be small and manageable.
  • Clear all flammable material and vegetation within 10 feet of the pile's outer edge.
  • Only burn when weather conditions are safe. Do not burn if it is windy or dry.
  • Keep a water supply and shovel close to the burning site.
  • A responsible adult is required by law to be in attendance until the fire is completely out.
  • Once a burn is completed, be sure to "mop-up" the ashes with water and stir. Wildfires are often started from "holdover" debris piles that were not properly extinguished. This can occur days or even weeks after they were burned. Failure to extinguish a fire can also be a misdemeanor offense and have a maximum penalty of up to 90 days in jail, a $1,000 fine or both. Suppression costs can range from $150 to millions of dollars.

What can be burned?

Dry leaves, plant clippings, brush and clean untreated/unpainted wood can be burned as long as weather conditions do not pose a fire hazard. No household trash, garbage or treated lumber can be burned outdoors at residences. Seek out alternatives for debris burning, such as taking debris to a yard waste facility or recycling or composting it.

When can burning happen?

Burning can only be done when allowed. Burn permits are only valid after daily activation. Check online or contact the local DNR forestry office to find out if burning is allowed.

Firewise in Minnesota

Firewise addresses the risk of homes in the wildland/urban interface to wildland fire.

As more homes are built in the woods and fields of Minnesota, the existing firefighting resources are less able to protect everyone's property while trying to control a wildfire.

Homes close to evergreens and the tall grasses of prairies or marshes are most at risk. Making one’s home able to survive an approaching wildfire is the goal of the Firewise program.

Minnesota has adopted the national Firewise program. Visit bit.ly/3y8t7cf for more information on the program and how to apply its principles in the community, as a homeowner, as a landscaper or contractor and in the classroom.

Source: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

CHELSEY PERKINS, community editor, may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

Related Topics: FIRES
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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