Spring Wildfires 2008

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Podcasts
Spring Wildfires 2008 .mp3 (1.6 Mb) 05/07/08

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Steve Carroll:

Greetings and welcome to the Minnesota DNR's program on spring wildfires. I'm Information Officer, Steve Carroll, pleased to be joined by Jean Bergerson, who is a Fire Information Officer for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids and has worked in emergency response for twenty years, both here in Minnesota and nationally.

Welcome, Jean.

Jean Bergerson:

Well, good afternoon Steve.

SC:

We're into the spring now in Minnesota and it's a nice time of year, but it's also known as fire season. Why is that?

JB:

Well, it's known as fire season because every year we have a spring wildfire season. We don't always have a fall wildfire season. But between the time the snow melts, and some of us have been waiting for that a long time, and green up occurs, which is when the grass and trees finally leaf out and get green, we always have some sort of a spring wildfire season. And that's the time of the year when all that vegetation that's dried from the winter can burn easily.

SC:

And this year with all the snow and the late snow and the colder than usual temperatures – how is that affecting the wildfire season?

JB:

Well, we're going into our wildfire season about a month later than usual. We've had some wildfires and we've had some fairly quickly spreading wildfires, but overall the Twin Cities metro area, for instance, which is usually in the heart of fire season by this time, has had very few fires. And it's because of the frequency of rains, the lingering cold temperatures, no soil warm-up, so we're really not getting much green up either even though there's been a lot of moisture out there.

SC:

How about up north now, what are the conditions there – so frost on the ground, where are we at with that?

JB:

We still have frost on the ground in a lot of northern Minnesota. And for those of us that are in the arrowhead, north central Minnesota, we've been getting consistently large April snowfalls, which of course is also unusual. So that's put some moisture on the surface, but not allowed it to sink down any further than the frost is out. And again because it's been cool ice is on, frost is in.

SC:

Oh, wow. We hear this time of year a lot about the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center. What is that and where is it?

JB:

It's actually something that started about 25 years ago in Grand Rapids and the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center is actually the place where the organization of Minnesota's emergency response agencies, including Homeland Security and Emergency Management, which is not thought of as a fire agency, are headquartered, dispatch resources, both in Minnesota naturally and nationally, and supplies and equipment.

SC:

And then how do the folks there get the information about where the wildfires are?

JB:

Well, we actually get them in two ways. We get them by reports from the agencies on what they're doing on fire activity every day, but we also get them because we are the location where cooperative aircraft are dispatched out of. For instance, the 215 Water Scoopers we've been talking about for years. The new tool in our toolbox the last couple years has been the Fire Boss, which is manufactured right here in St. Paul. We know when the helicopters are dispatched statewide. So that's our first clue that something is going on of consequence in a wildfire.

SC:

And it's a lot of cooperation between a lot of different agencies to make things happen I would guess.

JB:

That's right. The agencies here and ironically enough we'll occasionally get a call from Michigan or Wisconsin too asking to use our aircraft and cooperating with the natural resource agencies over there. Sometimes we have to call Ontario and ask them to send aircraft down to help us. So, it's Minnesota but also our neighbors as well.

SC:

Very good. Now what are spring fire restrictions? We hear a lot about that this time of year.

JB:

Spring fire restrictions are different than fire bans and people like to confuse and use both terms as the same thing. Fire restrictions means that if you go to a fire warden or if you go to a DNR forestry officer, someone else that issues a fire permit, now they're available online, that you cannot get that burning permit for a certain period of time. And usually that's from when wildfire season and fire danger elevates to a moderate to high until green up occurs.

A fire ban on the other hand usually occurs after an extended drought and then we'll hear things like you can't have campfires, you can't use your charcoal grill outside, you can't smoke outside. And so those actually have to come by commissioner's order.

SC:

The DNR Commissioner?

JB:

That's correct.

SC:

Right. And then how's that enforced?

JB:

The fire ban is enforced through both our conservation officers and our natural resource officers, which are forestry individuals that have enforcement authority.

SC:

I see. And then why are agencies allowed to do prescribed burns when the general public can't burn anything?

JB:

Well, that's a question we get a lot and we get a lot both from the public who is concerned because they're seeing fire, but also from the public who wants to burn and is not allowed to. And we burn under careful prescription and wildlife, parks, forestry, all of those entities as well as some of our federal partners, do a lot of prescribed burning for restoration of habitat. But we do that under conditions that dictate what kind of wind there is, how strong it is, what direction it's coming from, what the temperatures are, what the fuel conditions are in terms of drought, as well as having the equipment available to suppress that fire should we have some, what we term as, "slop overs."

SC:

Slop overs. Do you have an idea on how many prescribed burns take place in any given spring?

JB:

In any given year amongst all the agencies it would be safe to say there are hundreds of prescribed burns that take place. Some of these are as small as an acre or half an acre or five acres, others are as large as several thousand acres. And so it depends on what they are trying to do with the burn and who is doing the burning. Obviously some of our prairie burns on some of our small restoration prairie sites are rather small. Others that are for setting back habitat and getting rid of brush can be quite sizeable.

SC:

Is there a time of year that these prescribed burns take place?

JB:

Well, again that depends upon what kind of habitat restoration they want to do. This time of the year they'll start try and kill off brushy vegetation before it actually leafs out because it's easier to kill at this time of the year. So, if we're burning for sharp-tail grouse habitat, for instance, most of that's done this time of the year. They'll do some under-burning in some of the pine forests so it'll be easier for the pine seedlings to come up. A lot of the prairie burns will be a little later on because they want to actually kill the encroaching vegetation and help the prairie plants to seed and reseed better.

SC:

So certainly spring into the summer and probably into the fall.

JB:

That's right - spring and into the early fall. Some areas that they're doing burns and places that they're afraid the fire might have a chance of escaping they'll do in the fall with the thought that the frost will start in the evenings and the snow will soon be on the ground and it'll have all winter so there's not as much of a chance of it spreading in those areas.

SC:

I see, OK. Well, as we are into the spring wildfire season, are there some things that homeowners or cabin owners can do to protect their property?

JB:

Well, you know the fires on the Gunflint Trail have certainly been in the news the last few years. And one of the things that came out last year was sprinklers on roofs and how many homes the sprinklers on the roofs up on Gunflint saved.

But there are actually a number of other things that people that may just have a cabin can do to help. One of those things is looking where your fuel sources are. And by fuel sources we mean branches overhanging the roof of the cabin, firewood under the porch, firewood stacked on top of the porch, firewood stacked next to the building, grass and vegetation and leaves in the eaves on the roof close to the building that can carry fire quickly.

And one of the most important things for people to know is that fire people will not put themselves in danger to save a structure. In other words, if they could be in danger by coming into your driveway and not being able to turn around and get back out, they will not put themselves in that danger. So you need a driveway large enough for a fire truck to come in, turn around, and leave. And people need to think about that and keep those access points brushed out to that point.

SC:

Sometimes they forget about that when they're building their dream home in the middle of the woods – they're forgetting about the access and maybe how close they are to different fuel sources.

JB:

That's right. And, you know, to clear – you don't have to have a manicured, grassy lawn in every place you live - but to clear out some of that fuel is very important.

SC:

You talked about the sprinklers on some of the cabins up near the Gunflint and up in the Boundary Waters, or not in the Boundary Waters but up near there, do those really work?

JB:

They really do work. And what they do is it's like putting a fog around your structure. And so for a period of time they raise the humidity enough that the fire doesn't want to carry in and ignite those structures, in addition to actually doing the equivalent of if you had a hose and were constantly wetting down your building. But they figure that they saved probably well over 70% of the structures that had sprinklers were saved.

SC:

Wow. And there's a program in place if people want more information. It's called Firewise?

JB:

There is and Firewise is actually a national program. We have a very active program here in Minnesota. And they can look up, just plug in "Firewise" into their search engine on the Internet or go to the DNR website under the "Forestry Fire" and there's a local Firewise website here for Minnesota as well as some national tips.

SC:

And there's some great information that people can get on the website. I think there're also some materials they can get sent to them too as well.

JB:

There is. There's actually a home assessment tool that you can take around and check the little boxes and see how fire-safe your residence is. So, if your fire department hasn't made a call and you're curious how your home or cabin is doing, you can take that little tool and walk around your yard and see for yourself what you need to do.

SC:

Alright. Well, very good information. That's about all the time we have for today.

I'd like to thank our guest Jean Bergerson, Fire Information Officer from the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids for joining us.

JB:

Thanks Steve, it's been a good afternoon.

SC:

And for more information about wildfires you can visit the DNR website at www.mndnr.gov and you can look for "wildfires" under the A to Z list.

And thank you too for listening. I'm Steve Carroll with the Minnesota DNR.