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Fighting wildfire

A firefighter sprays one of two spot fires along the railroad track off Ratika Road in Thomson Township Friday afternoon. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal1 / 3
A helicopter's drop tank is filled with water at a nearby pond while helping put out a fire along the railroad tracks near Ratika Road in Thomson Township. Jamie Lund/Pine Journal2 / 3
Firefighters from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources help area firefighters fight a wildfire along the railroad tracks in Thomson Township Friday. The firefighter walking away from the camera is a "sawyer," and uses a chainsaw to safely cut downed trees. The DNR also provided the helicoptor and J5 all terrain vehicle pictured. Photo contributed by the Cloquet Area Fire District3 / 3

Just like the infamous Fires of 1918, several fires along the railroad tracks in Thomson Township Friday afternoon are believed to have been started by a train, according to Esko Fire Chief Kyle Gustafson.

Thankfully, conditions were not as bad last week and Carlton County is much better prepared today than it was 99 years ago.

There is still danger though. The fire risk is rated "high" across northern Minnesota right now, meaning fires start easily and spread at a fast rate, according to the DNR website.

On Friday, billows of grayish white smoke filled the air as firefighters from several local fire departments and agencies worked together to put out several grass fires that ran along the railroad line in a wooded area between Ratika Road and Interstate 35.

The first Esko firefighters on the scene decided to call for mutual aid from surrounding areas.

"The fire was big," said Gustafson, adding that the fire burned into a pine tree plantation near the track.

"It is really, really dry right now," Gustafson added.

The firefighters had to access the fires through residents' back yards due to the woods. The DNR sent in a helicopter with drop tanks to scoop water out of a nearby pond and drop it onto the fires.

"When there are multiple fires along the railroad tracks, it's good to have eyes in the sky," said Cloquet Fire Team Leader Patrick Wherley. "We have coverage in the ground and the sky."

The DNR contracts with Lake Superior Helicopter out of Duluth for 42 days during the highest fire danger time.

Because the fire was rural, it created extra challenges.

Some of the firefighters carried five-gallon bladder bags through the woods to help put out the fire and one of the hoses stretched far enough to be used on the fire closest to Ratika Road. They also brought in a J5 Firefighter, a track vehicle that can run on the railroad tracks and through swamp and brush equipped with a 119-gallon tank and foam system.

Other firefighters found access to another fire further down the track on Daveau Road.

The DNR sent 12 people to aid with the fire, three came from Cloquet, three from the Carlton fire department, three from Proctor and Esko had five firefighters at the scene.

Fire season usually begins early April in Carlton County.

"The fire season is about mid-point now," said Wherley. "There are more significant fires in May."

He credits the average to below-average fire season this year to a wet spring. There have been 31 fires in the area this year, with five runs on Sunday, April 30, alone. Wherley said the May 5 railroad fires covered about two acres of land before they were extinguished.

According to the DNR website, during spring restrictions, the state will not give out burning permits for burning brush or yard waste. Debris burning is especially dangerous in April and May when most wildfires occur in Minnesota.

Carlton County and St. Louis County are both restricted with no burning permits being issued at this time.

Residents are encouraged to use alternatives to burning such as composting or hauling brush to a collection site.

The restrictions usually last four to six weeks until sufficient green growth occurs. These spring restrictions have dramatically decreased the number and size of fires the DNR responds to each year.

Burning restrictions do not apply to campfires. The DNR suggests that people clear a five-foot area around the campfire, keep it small (under three feet high and wide) watch it continuously and make sure it is out cold to the touch before leaving. Have a bucket of water and shovel nearby.

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