Fast attack helped save Minn. town from wildfire
Published 5:45 pm Friday, May 18, 2012
When a downed power line sparked a wildfire in the dry forest near the northeastern Minnesota town of Ely, firefighters were ready to hit it fast and hard.
The fire was reported at 1:40 p.m. Thursday, about 10 minutes after it started. The first engine pulled up three minutes later, just as a spotter plane arrived overhead. The first responders called for a big Skycrane helicopter 10 minutes later, and it started dropping water onto the blaze at 2:01 p.m. The first water-scooping tanker planes arrived just over an hour later.
The fast response was crucial in stopping the fire just a few hundred yards from homes on the south side of Ely, a community of about 3,500 people that’s a primary outfitting and entry point for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Thousands of visitors a year flock to its North American Bear Center and its International Wolf Center.
Officials said Friday they were able to attack the fire so fast and save the town because they were prepared for it — they had people, fire trucks and aircraft nearby and on alert.
Luck also played a role, though. The fire was close to Ely. It started right alongside Highway 1 and followed it north toward the city. That made it easier to rush fire trucks and crews from several local volunteer fire departments to the scene. The Skycrane, which sucks up water through a long “snorkel,” happened to standing by at the Ely airport.
Firefighters spent Friday mopping up hot spots smoldering in the 216 acres blackened by the fire. Authorities said the danger wasn’t over because of dry conditions and high winds blowing north toward Ely. But no injuries were reported, and the fire burned only three outbuildings — a workshop, a storage shed and a hunting shack. Seven homes in the woods south of town remained under an evacuation order.
Officials laid important groundwork for fighting the Ely fire, and some much bigger recent forest fires, several years ago when they chose strategic sites for basing firefighting aircraft, said Sheldon Mack, wildfire aviation supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Ely is one of the primary bases, as are Hibbing, Brainerd and Bemidji. But officials also move aircraft around the state to deal with potential threats, he said.
The fire danger in the Ely area was high Thursday, and even higher in northwestern Minnesota. So when air attack supervisor Bob Perleberg got the call at the Bemidji airport, he was prepared. His guidelines call for launching within 15 minutes, but he said he was in the air in his twin-engine Queen Air in about 10. Two CL-215 tanker planes also were standing by there. Pilot Jason Robinson said he was sitting in one reading a book when the call came in, so he just started his engines.
“It’s what we do. It’s what we train for. It’s our profession,” Perleberg said. “We realize the faster you can get off of the ground, the faster you can get over the fire.”
Even five minutes can be critical in a wildfire, he said. A fire in the underbrush can become a full-blown blaze in the treetops that quickly, he said, and then it’s very difficult to stop.
“It means winning or losing. It’s very difficult to drag one of these things back in the box once it’s out,” Perleberg said.
It took Robinson and another CL-215 from Bemidji about 40 minutes to get to Ely. They arrived just behind Perleberg, who had already begun directing the air attack.
Robinson would scoop up water from Shagawa Lake just north of Ely. It takes only 10 seconds to fill the 1,400-gallon tank. He’d take off within 15 to 20 seconds of setting down, climb to about 300 feet as he headed back to the fire, then descend to 100 to 150 feet to dump his water, then repeat. Robinson said he dropped 23 or 24 loads — one every five minutes — in his two hours over the fire.
Two more CL215s arrived just after 4 p.m. They had been off fighting a different fire, on the Canadian side of Lake of the Woods, helping to hold it back until helicopters could extract a crew in danger on the ground. Other aircraft also joined the fight in Ely.
At first, the tankers focused on protecting the threatened homes and other buildings, Robinson said, soaking a line between the evacuated neighborhood and the fire so that firefighters on the ground could do their work. Then they attacked the fire’s western flank to keep it from finding a new path into the heart of Ely.
By 6 p.m. Thursday, officials were confident they had gained the upper hand. They soon began letting residents return home.
Perleberg pointed out that while planes and helicopters can pour a lot of water on a wildfire, it takes hot, dirty physical work by people on the ground to turn over the logs, dig through the peat and hose down the hot spots to ensure it’s dead. That’s the kind of work that was under way Friday.
“The guys on the ground, they’re always critical,” Perleberg said. “You can’t say enough for those guys.”