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Local forester helps fight Colorado wildfire

Smoke and haze from the Bull Draw fire lend an eerie color to the sunlight at about 2 p.m. on Aug. 11. (Photos courtesy of InciWeb)1 / 2
Brad Witkin, a Minnesota DNR Forestry officer based in Park Rapids, explains a map of the Bull Draw fire in southwestern Colorado, where he was involved in firefighting efforts this summer. (Robin Fish/Enterprise)2 / 2

A Park Rapids-based DNR Forestry officer spent July 29 to Aug. 24 on a wildfire control assignment out of town. Way out of town — a blaze in southwestern Colorado that, as of press time, is still burning.

"Minnesota has had two to three incident management teams in the past, each year," Brad Witkin said shortly after his return. "This year, one of our teams was called out to what they call a 'pre-position' because there was a lot of activity out west, and they knew that another team would be needed at some point."

Four days later, his 22-member "short team" was assigned to the Bull Draw fire, which like most western U.S. wildfires, was caused by lightning.

"That fire ended up being just a little over 30,000 acres," said Witkin. "When we got there, it was just a little over 4,000 acres."

Witkin's team did its part, but it could not stay until the fire was completely under control. As of Sept. 5, the Bull Draw fire remained only 60 percent contained.

"A normal length of assignment is 14 days with travel on each end," Witkin explained. "Due to the lack of management teams, because of the number of fires going on, they asked us to extend to a 21-day assignment, which we did. Then another team became available to replace us."

Luckily, it rained more than an inch the day the relief team showed up, "which really calmed it down," Witkin said. "I noticed that team was only there three more days, and then they turned it back over to the local team again."

Man with the plan

Witkin served as his team's planning section chief.

"The planning section produces a plan every day for what's to be done on the fire the next day," he said. It also sets team members' roles and work shifts, and produces maps of the fire.

As the plans chief, Witkin admitted, he did not have a shovel in his hand at any time during the assignment. "The biggest hazard is probably getting a paper cut," he chuckled.

Part of his daily routine was conducting meetings, including a morning briefing with the firefighters, a tactics meeting in the afternoon, and an evening meeting to communicate the plan to the agency administrators involved. One of the special challenges of the Bull Draw fire, he said, was coordinating between five agencies.

"The fire started on Bureau of Land Management land," Witkin explained. "It ran up into U.S. Forest Service land. When it did that, it crossed a county line, so we had two county sheriffs that we were dealing with, and the state of Colorado is responsible for the private holdings there. So there were five bosses who had to make sure you're doing what they want you to do."

The planning section, he said, tries to look three to five days ahead and ask, "What's the weather going to be doing? How is that going to affect the fire? Do we have enough resources to do what we think we need to do to catch the fire?"

Besides maps, key tools for the planning process include radios and cell phones, with portable radio towers and repeaters allowing firefighters to keep the command post updated.

Computer-generated maps are inserted in the team's incident action plan, with a QR code in one corner, for someone to scan and open the map on a cell phone. The maps show controlled and uncontrolled fire lines, homes that may need to be evacuated, roads and fire breaks.

Terrain challenges

The terrain can work both for and against firefighting personnel.

"Logistically, this fire was quite challenging," Witkin said. "To get from our incident command post to where most of our firefighting actions were taking place was an hour-and-a-half drive. So, we set up a 'spike camp' up in that area, at a campground, where firefighters could go and spend the night and get their meals. That was a challenge, making sure those folks got adequate meals and the things they needed up there."

Another challenge was finding water in a drought-stricken area for aircraft to dip up and drop on the fire. Witkin said there are cattle owners who rent grazing allotments in the national forest, and while some of them let the firefighters dip water out of their stock ponds, others didn't.

"So, we had to map where we can get water from for the fire," said Witkin.

He also recalled an incident that happened after several homes had to be evacuated near the fire.

"The next day, after the briefing in the morning, I see this woman crying and a couple of our people trying to console her," he said. "The story was, she feeds over 400 hummingbirds at her place. She had to evacuate, and she was very upset that she didn't know how the hummingbirds would do. So, they actually had firefighters who would be passing there go and fill her hummingbird feeders every morning with gallon jugs of sugar water. That's not something you see on every fire."

Witkin said fire teams train for what they call "an incident within an incident," with the primary incident being the fire — like when a tree falls on a firefighter.

"We had a number of those," he said, "but most of them were bee stings, with people being treated with epi pens. There was one day a truck went off the side of a mountain with really washboardy roads. We had to get a couple helicopters in there to get people out, but there were no really serious injuries. Those kind of things pop up, and you've got to be prepared for them."

Overall, Witkin said, "I think we did a good job."

Home fires

His trip to Colorado was Witkin's only out-of-state wildfire this year.

"I started in 1988," he said. "So, 30 years of at least a couple trips on average. In those early years, I was part of a 20-person hotshot crew that were just going from fire to fire, so you rack up a lot of fires that way.

"Now, our season here in Minnesota is in the spring, as soon as the snow melts. By June, we're typically out of the fire season. If we're caught up on our work, the state allows us to go on this type of deal. I typically do one or two each summer."

A 14-year veteran of the Park Rapids DNR Forestry office, Witkin previously worked for the state for six years in Zimmerman, and for the U.S. Forest Service for 10 years before that.

"My position is the fire program forester for the area," he said. "I recruit new people to help us in the spring, and make sure we're staffed up and ready for our local fires. When I'm not doing that, I do a fair amount of work with private landowners, helping them plant trees or doing timber harvests on their lands."

He was interested in forestry work before he realized how big a part of it is firefighting. In Minnesota, he estimated, there are approximately 1,500 wildfires each year.

"In the Park Rapids area, we had 80 fires this spring," he said.

Unlike western wildfires, Witkin said, "most Minnesota fires are human-caused. Most of that is debris burning. People cleaning up their yards in the spring, when everything is dry and not green yet, and burning piles of branches or leaves. If they don't make sure that they're out, and the next day it's windy, we see that as a cause of a lot of our wildfires."

Witkin was not the only Park Rapids DNR officer who spent time this summer fighting fires out of state. Mike Lichter recently returned from leading a task force in Oregon. Greg Johnson drove one of the department's fire engines to Colorado and back. Dan Carroll flew air attack.

"If you can picture three helicopters and a couple of air tankers working on this fire, his job is to fly above that and coordinate all that," Witkin explained.

He credited his supervisor, Mark Carlstrom, for encouraging his rise to planning section chief.

"He has been a planning chief himself," said Witkin. "He piqued my interest in it and has supported my involvement with it. The more experience you have, the more qualified you can become. It's not mandatory. Some people find it fun, and they just keep looking for the next higher position in what they do. Some people are just happy holding the end of the hose off the fire truck their whole career."

Being part of an interstate firefighting team, he said, is "something different in the forestry work that we do. It's a nice change of pace, sometimes."

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