HOMETOWN HEROES: Park Rapids DNR staff battle raging wildfires in western states
After pending weeks fighting fires from the air and on the ground, two DNR employees share their stories.
Western wildfires burning out of control have been in the news in recent months. Cory Kimball and Dan Carroll are two of the members of the Department of Natural Resources forestry division in Park Rapids who returned home recently from missions to help crews battling these fires.
Helping control the spread
Kimball was out from Labor Day weekend and returned last weekend from fighting the Red Salmon Fire in northern California. A fosterer who sets up timber sales for state lands, he worked as a heavy equipment boss on this assignment.
“About 120,000 acres had burned,” he said. “It was a huge fire and pretty complex. I had three dozers working for me and five excavators with brush cutting heads, also some crews cutting down trees. There were around 1,000 people fighting this fire.”
Kimball’s job involved walking the line in thick smoke in front of the dozers and other equipment for 16 hours a day carrying a pack weighing 30 to 40 pounds.
“I had to do an arduous pack test carrying 45 pounds for three miles and finish in under 45 minutes,” he said. The pack included a fire shelter to use for protection in case of emergency.
His crew helped prevent the fire from spreading.
“We would brush out an area so they could burn up to the rest of the fire so it wouldn’t advance,” he said. “I was scouting out in front and making sure the area was safe for equipment to maneuver,” he said.
Kimball said he likes doing this type of work because it’s an adrenaline rush.
“It’s complex and it’s hard work, but I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun,” he said. “And you get to be in the mountains.”
Kimball said the most exciting part of the trip was seeing the dozers going down mountainous terrain on Trinity Mountain, one of the steepest in California.
“Sometimes they’d hook a cable to the top of the mountain to a big tree to make sure the dozer wouldn’t tip over,” he said. “We had one incident where a dozer slid down a rock slide on the side of a mountain but they knew how to get out of it. I think they’re gaining a little bit on the fires, but more keep starting up so they’re using up their resources. They’re really glad that people from out of state come to help out.”
Smoke was the worst in the morning, settling into the valleys and decreasing visibility. “That made it difficult at times,” he said. “Lights had to be on when driving and sometimes we could only see 50 yards in front of us.”
At night firefighters camped at a nearby command post in tents at a safe distance from the fire.
Smoke chaser to equipment boss
Kimball has been dealing with wildfires for 11 years in his job with the Park Rapids DNR, first as a smoke chaser helping with fires in the local area, and for the past seven years as a forester.
“First I was just a basic firefighter, sitting in a truck spraying out fires, and moved my way up to a heavy equipment boss,” he said. “I enjoy that a lot because I grew up around heavy equipment my whole life, since my family owns Kimball logging. I’ve gone out west the past five summers. The guys running the dozers trust me to know the kind of terrain those machines can handle.”
Kimball said fighting wildfires is much different out west than here in Minnesota. “Here you go right at the fire and work around it, but out west you could be 12 miles away from the fire doing indirect work making dozer lines,” he said.
Staying out of the danger zone
Dan Carrol leads the Minnesota Air Attack Program and works with wildlife fire prevention for the northwest region. Out west, he is assigned to an airplane coordinating air attacks.
“I work with the pilot and we have radio communication with the ground crew,” he said. “I started July 20 and returned Sept. 20 with a short break in between. I was in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Washington, Oregon and Idaho.”
Carrol said one of the worst fires he fought was in Colorado. “Colorado’s in an extreme drought,” he said. “There’s exponential fire growth there. Washington and Oregon had a lot of the same conditions. There was very poor visibility that made it hard for aircraft to work. There were just short periods in the afternoon, if the smoke would clear, when we could go up. Close calls are something we absolutely try to avoid. We do everything in our power to plan and adjust so that doesn’t happen. As professional firefighters, we want to minimize and mitigate any possibility of close calls. We plan ahead to keep our people safe.”
“We have a ‘No Go’ decision process that we go through every time we get a mission request,” Carrol said. “There are criteria we go through. We’re supposed to operate with visual flight rules, so visibility is key. We’re not supposed to operate via instruments. So if the winds are too high and the smoke is too bad, we’re not going to do it. We need to have visibility in order to work safely.
“It’s my job to never get us into a situation like that. We have to do pre-planning throughout the day, watch the weather forecasts and conditions and go from there. Sometimes that means turning down assignments or just taking a breath and reassessing what’s going on. Success is when people come home at the end of the day and they are safe.”
Coordinating a joint effort
Federal, local and state agencies and contractors all work together to fight the fires.
Carroll’s role is to coordinate the airspace with the ground firefighters to meet their objectives.
“My overall priority is to safely separate and coordinate all of the aircraft and to make sure people are in a safe area,” he said.
Aircraft includes helicopters and drones gathering intelligence. Fixed wing aircraft can scoop and dump water as well as chemical retardants.
“The retardant is 85 percent water with a limited percentage of chemical and colorants,” he said. We use the retardant to build (fire) lines that the firefighters can work off of to slow the fire down, and use water to go directly on the fire’s edge to try and settle down the fire behavior so the ground firefighters can get in there and work. Ground firefighters are almost always using water out of buckets and tanks. They can dip out of streams, lakes or ponds and keep working on the fire’s edge.”
Carroll said drones have multiple uses, including evening and nighttime operations. “In areas that are remote, have poor access or are too dangerous to put ground fire fighters these very small drones can drop little spheres that start fires to do burnout or backfire operations when the fire is settling down. The benefit, safety-wise, is they are not engaging crews to do that mission. They can also gather intelligence by flying in certain areas and altitudes to let people know what the fire is doing and if it’s safe for people to go into those areas. They have cameras and some also have infrared capabilities. The big benefit to running them at night is it gives ground fighters situational awareness about what the fire is doing 24-7. Manned aircraft are limited, because shortly after sunset we have to be back on the ground.”
Carroll started training for this job in 2013 and certified for the position of air tactical group supervisor in 2015. “There’s a national academy in Arizona and local training in Minnesota to train and bolster that,” he said.
The training includes both lectures and flight training that includes 80-120 hours of flight training over fires, progressing from low and moderate risk to high risk, high complexity fires.
“When you’re able to meet the standards of certification then you get carded,” he said. “It’s a tough job, but that’s part of what intrigued me. You need to be sharp, to be engaged, and if you do those things and train and are prepared you can do a lot of good for ground fire fighters and for flight crews working in the air space you’re supervising and coordinating.”
Teamwork between states
Minnesota staff from the DNR who go to other states to help fight fires are paid by that state. “I’m still a State of Minnesota employee when I mobilize, but the western states pay my salary when I’m out there,” he said. “I provide a benefit to another state and am off the Minnesota payroll. I’m also actively working to improve my skill set and knowledge. It’s a win-win.”
Carroll said learning and training never stop.
“It’s a year around thing for me,” he said. “In Minnesota we start our meeting and training season in late December. We continue pre-planning meetings in February and March. By April we’re staffing aircraft in Minnesota. We have a fire season every year in Minnesota. Some are more substantial than others, but we are prepared for that. Our fire season usually slows down the middle of June. This year we were dry until the middle of July, but then got some moisture. That’s when I was able to ‘go available’ nationally and be ready to mobilize to the western states to assist with their fire seasons. I put my qualifications on a national chart, and anyone in those states can request my help. We mobilize to an area, generally work for two to three weeks and then take a short break.”
Firefighters from other states also help when fires threaten Minnesota. “It’s an exchange that helps both sides,” he said.
Carroll said western fire season goes into November, sometimes later especially in California. “They don’t have fire seasons, they have fire years,” he said.
Others from the area who participated in fighting western fires include Mike Lichter (area supervisor working as a crew boss), Joey Kuhlmann (forestry technician working as a ground crew member digging lines), Brad Witkin (forester, fire program and private forest management, working as a firefighting hand crew and engine crew member), Heath Wilson (fire lead in Park Rapids area office, who did a helicopter manager assignment), Donna Edelman (office manager, working in finance), Ben Wissler (fire lead in Detroit Lakes who does firefighting hand crew and was an engine crew member) and Kristi Henderson (office manager in Detroit Lakes field office, working in finance).