Could fires like 1918 happen again? Experts say probably not
A very specific set of circumstances led to the catastrophic fires of 1918. It's not impossible, but it does appear unlikely it could happen again. "You have a whole mix of contributors -- the railroad, the logging operations that had slash piles...
A very specific set of circumstances led to the catastrophic fires of 1918. It’s not impossible, but it does appear unlikely it could happen again.
“You have a whole mix of contributors - the railroad, the logging operations that had slash piles, a lot of the farm clearings and the drought they had that summer and fall,” said Josh Muchow, a forester with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Today a lot of those factors don’t exist or are minimized.”
What’s more, firefighters are faster and better equipped than they’ve ever been.
“Our technology for fire suppression, as well as response, is so much better. We spend a lot of time and money on training and putting fires out,” said Lane Johnson, research forester at the Cloquet Forestry Center. “In the Carlton County area, it’s very unlikely that something like it could occur again, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t have drought-driven fires in dry years that could affect life and property.”
Even in extreme conditions, the scale of any big blaze will be limited thanks to roads and readiness.
“We just have so many more volunteer fire departments that are so much more rapidly available and respond much more quickly than they could back in 1918,” Muchow said. “The potential to get as large is fairly minimized, unless there’s a huge large area of grassland with high winds - and even then it’s not as great as it was, because we have so many resources and access.”
Railcars still cause fires from time to time, but not with the frequency they once did. And railroads have plenty more fire-response equipment on hand when brakes or bearings throw sparks and ignite nearby brush.
Forests are still harvested for timber, but without the slash piles that provide fuel for the hottest fires. Further, the forest landscapes have long since lost most of the vulnerable and fire-prone pines and more fire-resistant species like aspen have taken their place, at least in forests closest to cities.
“Further north, in the Boundary Waters and in Northwestern Ontario, there is potential for larger events in those areas that are less developed,” Johnson said.
Fire suppression itself can lead to forest fires as easy-burning wood builds up, and as Xcel Energy shuts its biomass plants, additional fuel could remain in the forests.
“We’re trying to reduce fuel loading, and that ends up being expensive,” said Steve Olson, forest manager for the Fond du Lac Reservation. “We lost the biomass market and can’t get rid of that extra fuel as easily.”
Johnson notes there are many ecological benefits to natural forest fires, though the nature, timing and intensity of those fires could change in the coming decades.
“Predictions suggest warmer temps and more variable precipitation - not necessarily less rain but the time between events is more drawn out, and there’s potential for drought conditions between those events,” he said.
If there is a worst-case scenario awaiting us, it will probably be caused by humans.
“Right now, our primary ignition source is still the human factor, and we'll still have people who burn illegally or unintentionally and don’t understand the fire danger,” Muchow said. “It’s always good to be aware the potential is still there, and people should always be diligent, making sure campfires are out and cold. And if they are going to do any burning or brush piles, make sure they’re getting a permit.”
This article originally ran in our August edition of DNT Extra. Copies of the 43-page magazine recounting the events of the 1918 fires are still available for sale at the Duluth News Tribune office at 424 West First Street. Copies are $4 a piece. Our next edition of DNT Extra "What We Make," featuring area businesses and manufacturers, will be available October 28.