USA —The army of firefighters that Minnesota has counted on in recent years to battle big forest fires is ready again this year as the national wildfire season begins, federal officials said Thursday.
More than 15,000 firefighters from across the U.S. will be available in 2012, including permanent and seasonal federal and state employees, crews from tribal and local governments, contract crews and temporary workers, according to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who leads the National Forest system, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who leads the National Park Service and other federal land agencies. The two federal agencies have nearly $3 billion in this years fire budget to work with.
Officials said wildfires are becoming more complex as more people live and play in areas near forests or open grasslands. The federal agencies respond to an average of 20,000 wildland fires each year, most of which are suppressed quickly by the first crews called to the scene. But sometimes the fires last for days and weeks, as with last autumns Pagami Creek fire east of Ely. Thats when Minnesota calls on firefighters from other states to help.
More than 900 people from a dozen states and 150 miles of fire hose were used in the Pagami battle that cost more than $22 million. The fire started with a lightning strike Aug. 18 about 10 miles east of Ely and weeks later blew up to 93,000 acres, the states largest wildfire in decades. No one was killed and no private property was damaged.
This year several regions across the country face serious risks of extreme wildfires because of the mild winter and low precipitation, Salazar said in a telephone news conference.
Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin are among the areas of concern for the coming summer, especially if regular rainfall misses the region. Recent rains have helped replenish moisture in Northeastern Minnesota, but the Northland remains locked in a long-term dry spell with moisture far below average since September.
All of northern Minnesota and Wisconsin are rated abnormally dry or in moderate drought. Much of Lake and Cook Counties are officially listed as in severe drought. Areas where past storms downed trees are especially ripe for fires to spread.
So far, no major fires have occurred in the Northland this season.
We started early this year, with fires in March, but its quieted down. Were pretty normal as far as the early fire season right now, said Jean Goad, spokeswoman for the Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids. Now, its just wait and see. The rain and snow weve had recently really helped. But that can change quickly.
There are five water-scooping fire-bombers stationed in northern Minnesota, with several other smaller planes and helicopters on hand, including Minnesota National Guard Blackhawk helicopters that can be fitted with water buckets. Federal fire officials also can send additional aircraft when needed, as they did during the Pagami blaze.
Multiple teams of Minnesota-based firefighters are ready to drop their usual jobs and roll when needed, comprised of federal and state agency employees, such as foresters, who are also trained to fight fires. Those Minnesota crews often are sent to other states when conditions are wet here. Some Minnesota-based firefighters are battling a blaze in northern Michigan, Goad said.
In addition to the Northland, forecasters at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, said Thursday that an exceptional drought continues across much of the Southwest, from western Texas to California and into the Great Basin. That increases the possibility of an above-normal fire season in those areas this year. Also of concern are the western slopes of the Rockies in Colorado, parts of the Southeast to include southern Georgia and northern Florida and parts of Hawaii.
Over the past decade, wildfires have destroyed 28,000 homes, businesses, and outbuildings. Wildfires can threaten power and communications, close businesses and travel routes and put people out of work, federal officials noted Thursday. They urged people with homes or property in fire-prone areas to plan ahead to protect their buildings and their lives. More information is available at www.firewise.org and www.iafc.org/readysetgo.