In the northernmost county of the “Lower 48,” there was historic drought, the worst since 1988. Help was needed fighting two wildfires that broke out around the Lake of the Woods, which Minnesota shares with Canada.
A crew of 20 firefighters left from the Ohio state fire marshal’s office in mid-August with five trucks and all the equipment they would need. For two weeks they worked 16-hour shifts, facing all the dangers of fire — like falling limbs and leaping flames — as well as heat exhaustion in the 90-plus temperatures.
The firefighters sent to Minnesota were from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Division of Wildlife, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Wayne National Forest and some local fire departments in central and southern Ohio.
This spring and summer, other crews were sent to fight fires outside Glacier National Park in Montana and Six Rivers National Forest in California, as well as wildfires in Wisconsin and Michigan.
“Ohio firefighters are well trained to deal with the chaotic situations that are happening to our west,” said Greg Guess, wildfire supervisor and assistant chief for the Ohio Division of Forestry, who was also on the front lines of the Minnesota fires.
“The Division of Forestry has agreements with major land management agencies in the United States to share resources in times of need,” he said. “If we need help, we can ask.”
The division conducts training every year, which is also offered to firefighters from municipal and township fire departments who are interested in learning to fight “wildland” fires.
Sure, Smokey Bear is still urging people not to start them, “but they’re not called forest fires any more,” Guess explained. “Wildlands are anything that includes natural vegetation, which could be a number of different environments and habitats.”
In Minnesota, it was boreal forests with spruce, balsam fir, jack pine and tamarack trees. They’re prone to have crown fires, where the entire tree is on fire and the fire spreads through the tops of the trees.
In Ohio, where there are more oak, hickory and hardwood forests, the fire tends to spread through the leaves on the ground, he said. Plus, there’s more organic matter in the soil up north, so the fire can spread from the trees into the ground below.
“That peat soil can continue to smolder for months if it’s not dealt with properly,” Guess said.
The fires they dealt with in Minnesota “were in the hundred-acre range, so fairly big but not enormous,” he said.
But because of the way they spread, and the smoldering ground, “fires that could have been controlled in a day or two took a week to get under control.”
There were about 150 firefighters total assigned to the Minnesota fires. Again, they faced the usual dangers from the smoke and flames and had to protect themselves by wearing long sleeves and long pants. That made staving off heat exhaustion even more difficult in the hot temperatures and low humidity, so they had to take frequent breaks to drink water with electrolytes.
Surrounding Lake of the Woods are both agricultural and tourist areas. Firefighters wanted to protect homes and cabins in the area, but also the rest of the forest which provides habitat for so many species of wildlife, Guess said.
Aircraft were used to fight the Minnesota fires, along with bulldozers. The goal was to get the crown fires back to the ground so they could be contained. Firefighters used digging and cutting tools, along with pumps and hoses.
Many were armed with a pulaski, which has an ax on one end and a hoe on the other, Guess said.
The Ohio Division of Forestry trains folks in federal, state, and local agencies in wildland firefighting, as well as managed fires for forest regeneration.
Since 1986, Ohio crews and individuals have helped fight wildfires in other states, as well as assisting with response to hurricanes, floods and other disasters. Meanwhile, they stay ready in case something happens in their own state.
“We’ve not had an extreme drought in a number of years but we probably will again,” Guess said. “We’re staying in practice and learning skills for the future.”
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