- Associated Press - Saturday, June 27, 2015

ELY, Minn. (AP) - A warm morning breeze blew across Lynne Hill’s porch overlooking Burntside Lake as fire crews prepared to set a 750-acre fire nearby.

Hill felt confident the Forest Service would pull off the prescribed burn safely. But, just in case, Hill had laid out three hoses snaking through the skinny red pines surrounding her house.

“I’m going to keep an eye on it,” she said. “If it gets out of control, there’s nothing anybody can do, we’ll just hop in our car. I have a little overnight bag packed, just in case.”

Prescribed burns have become a ritual here the past few years, Minnesota Public Radio News (http://bit.ly/1ftRLbC ) reported. They’re designed to burn off brush and other fuel to help prevent even bigger wildfires. While it’s hard to escape the anxiety of a fire in the woods, there’s some comfort in watching how it’s done.

Last week, firefighters with the Superior National Forest intentionally started several large forest fires near Ely. A crew of about 50 on land, water and in the air was there to manage the burns.

“There’s a lot of radiant heat, if you notice, we’re getting sucked in a little bit,” Forest Service Public Information Officer Tim Engrav said as he and other officials examined the fires by boat about two hours after they were set. “The heat will draw the air in, pulling the boat towards shore.”

The boat stopped just a few feet from the fire, close enough to hear it crackle. A thick plume of smoke billowed into the sky above the rocky islands and cabins that dot the lake. At the shoreline, fire licked at the trunks of red and white pines, and then burned hot when it hit patches of balsam fir.

This prescribed burn is designed to slow down a wildfire that could start in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and move toward Ely.

When a fire comes out of the wilderness the wind will push it toward the area that’s already been burned, “and it’s going to drop down in intensity, and we’re going to be able to have a better chance of picking it up,” said Timo Rova, a fire management officer for the west zone of the Superior National Forest. “So this is protecting the community.”

The prescribed fire will also help regenerate the forest by clearing out the highly flammable balsam fir that’s clogging the forest.

“We’ve got all these granddaddy and grandparent white pine, we don’t have any of their kids, or very few,” Rova said. “If we don’t do this, we don’t get their seeds down in here to start getting babies coming.”

Even with months of planning, there is a risk to prescribed fire. Sometimes the weather shifts unexpectedly, and fires can burn out of control.

Superior National Forest officials say they have had about a 99 percent success rate with controlling prescribed burns. But Rova says there are dangers of not doing them.

“All you have to do is look at all the states out west, where they didn’t allow it, and then they lost their communities to wildfire. Fires going 30 miles in a day. And we’re starting to see that again here,” Rova said, listing off several large fires in the last decade in Minnesota - Pagami Creek, Ham Lake, Cavity. “It’s going to happen if we don’t get out and do this kind of stuff.”

Fire has helped shape northern Minnesota’s forests for centuries. It’s how Burntside Lake got its name. In the early 1900s, though, the Forest Service began extinguishing every fire that ignited. Detractors called it the Smokey the Bear effect.

Without the natural loss of vegetation, however, forests became choked with trees. When wildfires start in those overgrown areas, they often burn too hot and dangerously for firefighters to be able to control them.

The Forest Service has been conducting more prescribed fires over the last decade or so. To minimize the risk along Burntside Lake, officials delayed the burn until conditions were optimal.

Soaking rains have dampened the forest, reducing the risk of the fire spreading, but the fuels are still dry enough to burn. They thinned parts of the forest in advance, but the burn still demands to be closely watched.

A float plane circled overhead, watching for spot fires. Crew leaders in boats monitored the blaze, and gave direction to firefighters on the ground who used torches to light the fire along the shore.

Slowly, a wall of fire rose up behind them. One of firefighter hooted out to others on the ground. That’s something the firefighters will do if they lose sight of each other, Engrav said.

Several crews were also positioned around the fire perimeter and near people’s homes, in case the fire broke containment. They were also stationed at campsites along the lake the Forest Service wants to protect.

There, firefighter Mike Rice demonstrated the art of the fire. Clad in the standard fireproof yellow shirt and green pants, he stretched out a long hose to create a wet fire line to protect this campsite. Then he used a drip torch to burn away from the line.

“So you can see the wick is lit, as that fuel passes over it, it just catches the flame, simple and effective,” he said. “The main objective is when we walk away, we’ve got a nice, cold black edge, and it’s going to be secure.”

On this day, everything goes as planned.

“What we’re really doing is putting fire back in and letting Mother Nature do what Mother Nature’s doing,” Rova said. We’re just trying to give it an opportunity, and get that thing started, and we stand back and let it do its thing.”

Back on land, the wind died down and smoke settled over Lynne Hill’s house.

“It makes me sad, anytime I see those huge trees, that you can’t get your arms around, light up in flame,” she said of the giant white pines she loved. “I’m glad it’s done, I’m glad it’s over with, I’m glad there was nothing unexpected that happened.”

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Information from: Minnesota Public Radio News, http://www.mprnews.org

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