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Minnesota's 'tinderbox conditions' are exhausting firefighting resources, US Forestry officials say

U.S. Forest Service officials told Minnesota lawmakers on Thursday that firefighters have been battling flames since early spring, far earlier than usual, and their resources are growing exhausted.

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Crews battle the Greenwood Fire in the Superior National Forest. Contributed / Superior National Forest
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ST. PAUL — Battling "tinderbox conditions" up north, U.S. Forest Service officials say that their firefighters and resources are growing exhausted, and there are still weeks left to go in this year's unprecedented wildfire season.

Superior National Forest Supervisor Connie Cummins told Minnesota lawmakers in a Thursday, Aug. 26, virtual meeting that firefighters have been working to control numerous blazes since the early spring — earlier than is typical in Minnesota — and “our resources are getting pretty tired.”

“Probably stating the obvious, but we’ve been in a really unprecedented situation with our wildfire activity and our drought and our field condition up here in the northeastern part of the state,” Cummins said. “We’re just not getting any moisture.”

There are numerous fires burning within state lines, but there have also been ongoing fires across the border in Canada. With the weather dry and windy, Cummins said officials are watching the Canadian fires with worry, as they draw closer and closer to Minnesota.

“These are just tinderbox conditions,” Cummins said.

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The entirety of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is closed until at least Sept. 3 in order to protect campers, canoers and recreationalists from the blazes. The forestry officials and lawmakers noted that the closure not only affects those with plans to explore, but the nearby small towns and businesses who rely on tourism dollars every summer.

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The Greenwood Fire was estimated to be 25,991 acres on Thursday, Aug. 26. Contributed / Superior National Forest

Asked how soon the wilderness may open up again, Cummins said it’s a delicate formula to consider. Not only do the blazes need to be under control so that visitors wouldn’t be in acute danger, but the Forest Service needs the manpower to conduct emergency evacuations if the situation were to get dire again. Being a sprawling wilderness, it can take two to three days to evacuate individuals from the Boundary Waters in the event of an emergency, Cummins said.

Cummins commended the firefighters’ skill in containing the fires, and interagency coordination that have offered the Forest Service more resources, but there’s more help needed. Hundreds of firefighters are deployed, but the Forest Service is waiting on a request for approximately 100 more.

Additionally, Incident Commander Brian Pisarek said that when hundreds of seasonal firefighters flood the area, small towns such as Ely and Isabella only have so much food and housing available to keep the firefighters sheltered and fed.

And then there’s the fatigue. Firefighters — who are often seasonal workers, working without benefits — have been at it since spring, far earlier than the typical fire season in Minnesota.

Noting that Minnesota’s fire season doesn’t typically take off until the fall, Gov. Tim Walz said officials have to figure out how to maintain their pace as firefighters and resources grow more exhausted. He said Wisconsin’s Gov. Tony Evers floated the idea of offering assistance, but didn’t offer details.

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“I think that’s the one thing we need to make sure Minnesotans understand, this long haul that’s involved here,” Walz said.

U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith touted the Senate’s latest infrastructure package, which includes long term funding for land and forest management, including $600 million to permanently hire firefighters with benefits.

Cummins said that while the Forest Service is “extremely excited” about the proposed funding, they just don’t have the departmental personnel right now to contract and hire the workers necessary to conduct controlled burns and mechanical forest maintenance needed in the long run.

“We have to start thinking outside the box about how we get the work done,” she said.

Mearhoff is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. You can reach her at smearhoff@forumcomm.com or 651-290-0707.
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