Firefighters continued to work on the ground at the Greenwood Fire on Monday. Crews have been on the scene in 14-day rotations since it started Aug. 15. Nearly 500 worked through the Labor Day holiday because, as Lonnie Lilly, northeast regional manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said, "Fires don't take holidays off."
"And neither do our firefighters," Lilly said. "It's been an incredibly long fire season, since it started in March. I was talking with one of our team members a few weeks ago and she said she's going to miss her husband's birthday again this year because she's away on a fire assignment. So it really means a lot for us to have these visitors today."
U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Tina Smith, D-Minn., and Gov. Tim Walz visited the Forward Operating Base in Isabella on Monday to receive a briefing from officials battling the wildfires, to survey fire damage and to talk with firefighters on the ground about their work.
Planning Operations Section Chief Mike Behrens spoke with the officials on the current fire statuses.
"With some of the moisture and cool temperatures, all three of these fires are nothing more than smoldering," Behrens said. "The peat is dry and the state is still in a drought, so it's just creeping and smoldering with the peat that's down and dead under the woody canopy."
The Whelp Fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness remains at 50 acres and is still in a monitoring phase.
The John Ek Fire near the Gunflint Trail has had a lot of fuel mitigation work done around residences and the fire itself to keep it under control should it flare up again. It remains at 1,300 acres.
There is no active flame on the Greenwood Fire and Behrens said they expect to see more containment through the next week if conditions remain the same.
"It'll probably be into October before it's considered 100% contained however," Behrens said.
Preventing future fires
Klobuchar asked what could be done differently to help prevent or mitigate these fires in the future. Behrens said, "getting folks ready for fire."
"It's not 'if there'll be a fire,' it's 'when there will be fire,'" Behrens said. "We need to work with folks on public and private lands to ensure they're ready for fires by having fuel breaks and fuel mitigation around their homes."
Connie Cummins, Forest Supervisor for the Superior National Forest, touted the region's FireWise program which helps slow the spread of fire by limiting its fuel. Fuels such as balsam fir and trees killed by spruce budworms act as tinder for growing fires.
"We'll go in and take out the balsam fir, crush it and pile it or burn it," Cummins said. "That makes a huge difference in what structures survive when we see the fire burn through an area."
Although the FireWise programs have been successful in saving some structures, Cummins said there's more work that needs to be done in the forest itself. According to Lake County Commissioner Rick Goutermont, the county has identified approximately 10,000 acres of land that are "extremely high with balsam."
"We need to be doing a lot more in the forest. We need a base of local contractors who can do that kind of fuel mitigation work," Cummins said. "It requires a lot of equipment and risk.
Klobuchar and Smith are currently working on two bills which include roughly $45 billion in funding for climate-related situations such as wildfires.
"It’s money to clear out underbrush ahead of time so that the fires aren’t as intense," Smith said. "It’s also money so that these firefighters — many of them contract workers who are making hardly any money and hardly any benefits — so that they can become full-time employees with benefits, which to me, is a right way of thanking them for the work that they’re doing."
Smith referred to the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill approved by the Senate and the budget reconciliation bill currently in progress.
"We need to put more resources into forest management and thankfully we're working on that right now," Klobuchar said. "And we're not alone in this need as we're seeing this in other areas like California and the Pacific Northwest."
Talking with firefighters at the scene
After the briefing with fire officials, the senators and Governor Walz spent time speaking with the firefighters working on the fireline. The group met in a space which just over two weeks ago was "a wall of fire" according to U.S. Forest Service incident commander Jim Grant.
"Here you can see what we have to deal with. This dead balsam tree is just one example of the fuels that make these fires burn hotter," Grant said. "They're like Roman candles. They're already dead and go up so fast."
Another issue firefighters have to deal with is the fire moving deep in the undergrowth. Anthony Flamio, Connecticut-based firefighter, said it's been an eye-opener to work on this fire because it works differently than the fires he's dealt with in the past. In this forest, fire burns deep in the moss bed.
"Getting in there and finding the hot spots is half the battle," Flamio said. "We have to use our eyes and ears and most importantly our noses. Sometimes we'll walk through the same grounds multiple times and see different smokes each time."
Flamio said that firefighters use their tools to dig into the moss and put out hotspots using gallons of water.
"We have most of the resources we need to do our jobs; it's just laborious work and it takes time," Flamio said.
Walz reflected on the work done so far to contain the fires and thanked the firefighters for their work.
“We owe our thanks to the tireless efforts of firefighters and first responders in containing the Greenwood Fire," Walz said. "But we have more difficult weeks ahead of us, and it’s important for us to continue to follow fire safety restrictions.”