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Local DNR Forestry staff volunteer to fight fires in the northwestern region

An image of the Whittier Fire, which has burned 18,430 acres, was taken on July 8 as it burned Los Padres National Forest in California, where Park Rapids DNR Forestry Fire Team Leader Brad Witkin was sent to help fight the fire. (InciWeb)1 / 4
A crew works to rehabilitate a dozer line on a portion of the Sunrise Fire which has burned 26,185 acres in Lolo National Forest in Montana where Park Rapids DNR Forestry Technician Greg Johnson helped to contain the fire. (InciWeb)2 / 4
Firefighters dig line on Morrell Mountain in an effort to contain the Rice Ridge Fire which has burned 135, 355 acres in Lolo National Forest in Montana where the DNR Forestry Office Manager Donna Edelman volunteered. (InciWeb)3 / 4
A smoke column rises above the Chetco Bar Fire in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest located in Oregon where Park Rapids Area Forest Supervisor Mark Carlstrom is currently volunteering to help fight the fire that has burned over 180,000 acres. (InciWeb)4 / 4

Earlier this summer, the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center (MIFC) in Grand Rapids began sending local DNR foresters/firefighters out west to work on the forest fires that have, to date, burned over 1,800,000 acres.

The first crews were dispatched to Arizona and New Mexico before activity became more overwhelming in the northwestern region of the U.S. and parts of Canada.

Over 300 Minnesota DNR firefighters have been dispatched, including seven permanent personnel from the Park Rapids office branch and a number of seasonal firefighters as well.

"DNR Forestry has three main missions. One is the state land management, private forest management and fire. On the fire end of it, here locally in Minnesota, our fire season is each spring as soon as the snow melts and everything is dry and ready to burn, so we have a fire season that goes from March into June," Park Rapids DNR Forestry Fire Team Leader Brad Witkin explained. "When things green up and we're done locally and caught up on other work we're allowed to make ourselves available to go out west or south or wherever to help with other fires."

According to Witkin, Minnesota DNR has sent out nine, 20-person "hand crews" this year. There is a variety of positions needed in fighting fires. Hand crews go out to dig fire lines. There are people that work with helicopters. There are people who work on air attack flying around over the fires and manage the air tankers and people also volunteer to work in the finance section, maintaining contracts and ensuring the firefighters get paid.

"This year there's a lot going on in northern California, Oregon, Washington. Montana has been very busy. With dry conditions they've been having lots of fires," he said. "So we take turns going on fire assignments; people are qualified in different things."

Witkin says a typical tour is 14 days, with travel added and even though permanent employees are encouraged to go it is voluntary. Tours can be extended to three weeks, however, it's not encouraged due to the increased risk of injury. A typical workweek consists of 14 to 16 hours each day, seven days a week.

"Our number one priority is what happens in our state, but if work is caught up and you have your supervisor's approval then you can put yourself on a list to go out west," he explained. "There is some encouragement in years like this and when we go out we get paid by the federal government which saves the state our wages."

He added that several of the seasonal employees have gone at least four times due to the amount of help needed this year.

"A lot of the fires are showing that they aren't going to be contained until the middle or the end of October," he said. "Usually about now, things start slowing down, but it's been a different year for the northwestern United States."

The Minnesota Incident Command System is an interagency group with state and federal entities that cooperate in management of wildfire and all risk incidents to provide standard procedures on incidents in Minnesota.

Member agencies are the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the DNR, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service and the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

There are three incident command teams in Minnesota. An All Hazard Team, which consists of 40 people, has all of the functions to manage any kind of incident, whether it's flooding, tornadoes, fires, etc. They are all managed the same.

Each incident produces an incident action plan. Every morning a briefing is held with all of the firefighters where they are told what the fire did the day before and what it is expected to do, and they are told what the plan is and basic instructions of what their jobs will entail.

In Minnesota, fires are generally human-caused but the majority of the fires raging in the western part of the nation were caused by lightning.

According to the National Interagency Coordination Center's Incident Management Situation Report, published on Tuesday, there are currently 118 active fires in the U.S., which have burned 1,873,496 cumulative acres with a total of 22,974 voluntary personnel working to put out the fires.