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DNR smoke chasers get little rest when hot winds blow

Les Miller was just turning his truck into a Solway Township driveway Sunday afternoon to ask about a brush pile left smoldering overnight when his radio squawked yet again.

Les Miller was just turning his truck into a Solway Township driveway Sunday afternoon to ask about a brush pile left smoldering overnight when his radio squawked yet again.

A grass fire was running fast in a backyard in Hermantown. Miller, fire program forester for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Cloquet Area, threw the truck into reverse, backed out of the driveway and headed east toward the smoke plume.

"They're popping today," Miller said.

It was turning out to be one of those days for the smoke chasers.

That's the Minnesota term for the 50 or so seasonal firefighters the DNR hires to stamp out the grass and brush fires that flare up each spring. Some days are filled with busywork -- raking, painting, fiddling with the trucks -- as they wait for something to "pop." But not Sunday.

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Dry forests, gusty winds and warm weather combined to make it a red flag day, when the fire danger is at its peak.

They were the kind of conditions that make little fires quickly blossom into big, nasty ones, Miller said. And as he and new DNR smoke chaser Erica Behning of Duluth drove from fire to fire, the radio kept squawking.

Two small fires in Proctor were going but under control. Lines were down in Canosia Township and Hermantown. Smoke was rising from a mine dump area outside of Hibbing -- out of their area. A brush fire was going near the Moose Lake Town Hall, and there was plenty of mop-up to do on a 43-acre woodland fire east of Whiteface Reservoir, which started on Saturday afternoon and burned hot and fast.

Nothing exploded out of control on Sunday in Northeastern Minnesota, though firefighters were kept busy from early morning until early evening, tamping back the flames.

Miller has been chasing fires for the DNR since 1972. He likes the challenge of responding to changing conditions, and on Sunday, as he directed equipment from one fire to another, he was in the thick of it.

Behning, who plans to become the third generation in her family to fight fires, had a crash course in wildland firefighting on Saturday. She had seen burning snags drop to the ground, and understood why firefighters call them "widowmakers." She learned techniques to tear into thick moss and douse lingering embers. She learned that her new thick-soled firefighting boots needed more breaking in. Her feet hurt, she said, but she wasn't complaining.

"I like being around fire," Behning said.

That's true for a lot of smoke chasers. The work is hard, dirty, hot, inconsistent and sometimes boring, and pays about $9 or $10 per hour.

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Chasers Adam Hanson of Duluth and Sarah Ellison of Grand Rapids, both members of the Minnesota Conservation Corps, were attacking a stump left smoldering near Whiteface Reservoir. Hannah Tvedt of Duluth walked across the charred ground nearby, her 45-pound "bladder bag" of water strapped to her back.

"We were mostly in the black today," Tvedt said, referring to working in areas that already had burned. On Saturday, she had been on the scene when young red pines quickly dried out and turned into torches.

A DNR spotter plane flying over Two Harbors identified a "medium-gray" smoke plume Saturday rising from the Whiteface Reservoir area, Miller said. By the time an aircraft arrived at the scene, a

7 acre fire was burning briskly, and it quickly spread to cover more than 43 acres.

Smoke chasers usually begin work at 10 a.m., but on Sunday, crews headed to the reservoir fire at 8 a.m.

"We wanted to do some more work on it so we don't lose it," Miller said. Aircraft had been called off and sent to other fires, though Greg Rock of Duluth still was carving a fire break through the woods in a J-5 Bombardier.

Rock had worked the fire for eight hours on Saturday and had started again at 8 a.m. on Sunday. Rock is retired after working for 31 years in a grocery warehouse, and he loves climbing in the Bombardier. "I found something I like to do," he said.

Investigators don't yet know how the fire started. There are no power lines in the area and there had been no lightning, Miller said.

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Spotter planes continued to fly overhead as crews worked below.

Two smoke chasers in Cotton, however, were sets of eyes high in the sky at their station in the 120-foot-high lookout tower, one of just 20 or so towers still in use in the state. Sam Bruley, 18, of Duluth had been a smoke chaser for all of two days, while Kirk Bates of Duluth has been chasing for about seven years.

The tower shuddered a little against the 30-mph wind gusts as they scanned the horizon. Smoke chasers still climb the tower on days with high fire danger, when spotter planes are busy working elsewhere. If a fire pops, Bates figures he can get down the tower and into a truck in less than three minutes.

As Miller and Behning drove back to Duluth, they stopped at the Solway Township call, and then headed to Hermantown to deal with the grass fire that was stopped about 50 yards before it reached a neighbor's garage. Behning paced the fire's perimeter, spraying soapy water on hot spots and flareups while Miller hacked at a smoldering alder bush with an axe.

It was late in the day when Miller returned to his office to write up the day's reports, and he still was on call.

You can make up a work schedule for a day like Sunday, he said, but the weather might have other ideas.

Sometimes you just have to work until the last fire is out.

JANNA GOERDT covers the communities surrounding Duluth. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5527 or by e-mail at jgoerdt@duluthnews.com .

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