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In the line of duty

Sun, Sep 17th, 2000
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Spring Valley men go west to battle forest firesBy Carol ThouinMonday, September 18, 2000

Reality television such as Big Brother and Survivor may have dominated the programming schedules this summer, but it was the stark reality of another kind that raged throughout the western United States.

Tens of thousands of acres of wilderness forest have exploded into what is being recorded as the worst fire season in more than 50 years. Years of fire prevention efforts across the country have left old growth forests over populated with trees and worse yet, thick with underbrush and debris that has added intense fuel to the growing fire of 2000.

It all began early in the summer with a controlled burn turned bad near Los Alamos, New Mexico. The out-of-control inferno resulted in more than 200 homes being destroyed. An uncommonly dry summer, coupled with deadly lightning strikes initiated countless other fires throughout the western states of Idaho, Montana, the Dakotas, Wyoming, Oregon and California. When it became obvious that the situation had grown beyond what local wildland fighting crews were able to handle, volunteers were summoned.

Jim Edgar and John Kelly answered the call. Edgar and Kelly, both of Spring Valley, work as Foresters for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Forestry Division located in Preston. With nearly 40 years of combined service under their belts, the two have become veterans of wildfire burns.

Kelly wears the hat of Cost Unit Leader, a vital behind-the-scenes operation that requires meticulous calculations of the costs of fighting each fire. Armed with his laptop and printer, Kelly began his volunteer stint in early June during the fire in Los Alamos, Mexico.

"In the heat of battle, people will sometimes make promises that they will do anything to put out a fire," said Kelly. "My job is to cut through all that, anticipating what the project will actually entail and what its going to cost."

Foresters working for the DNR in Minnesota are given the option of volunteering out of state to fight fires. Theyre paid for their efforts, but for safety reasons, cant work more than a 14-day stretch. After 12 days in New Mexico and with cost estimates defined, Kelly rested up before moving on to a fire in Nevada, then Idaho and finally Montana where he met up with Edgar who had been deployed to the same fire.

They found Montanas big sky shrouded in a thick cloud of smoke. Teams were assigned according to a detailed Incident Action Plan, a report outlining the role and function of each key position on a particular fire. Complete with detailed maps, weather forecasts and operations summary, crews were kept well informed because of careful pre-planning.

"Safety is really stressed," said Kelly. Aerial and ground lookouts keep firefighters up-to-date on changing conditions out in the field. Thats important for Edgar, a crew boss, who works more on the front line.

Charged with managing a three-ton rig holding 850 gallons of water, Edgar led his crew on the Monture spread fire, in the Lolo National Forest near Lincoln, Montana.

"Fires are given names from either the mountain it started on or the valley its burning in to," explained Edgar.

When it became impossible for the big tanker to maneuver into wilderness areas where fires had spread, Edgar deployed his crew to areas populated with homes.

"We set up a triage," Edgar said. The group mapped out the area, pinpointing homes that were near the burn. "We had to decide which ones could be saved and which ones were lost," he said. Its a difficult task when you know it affects people lives, according to Edgar, but rewarding when you can save someones property. "People are usually really glad to see us come around," Edgar said. "Weve even had people volunteer to do our laundry for us while were away from home." For an outfit living temporarily in a base camp out in a pasture and sleeping in tents, its an offer that isnt refused.

Firefighters must pass a strenuous physical test before being allowed on the front lines. "You have to be able to walk three miles carrying a 45-pound pack in no more than 45 minutes," said Kelly. But the energy thats typically needed out in the field at an actual fire far surpasses whats required during the test. Crews typically work 12 14 hour days in adverse conditions and back-up reinforcements are scarce.

"It can be frustrating when you have to leave a fire when your time is up, and there is nobody to replace you," said Edgar. With new fires that seemed to start up each day throughout the Rockies this summer, finding enough help was a prevalent problem.

"When I was in Montana, 250 different fires started in one day," explained Kelly. "With the resources we had, it was only possible to fight 30 or 40 of them." With changing weather conditions and a regular turnover in the workforce, game plans often have to be re-thought and priorities reassigned. But for the outdoorsy individual, whos flexible, its a job second to none.

"Its an adventure, " said Jim Edgar about being in Forestry. "You never know where youre going to end up. For their wives, Kathy Kelly and Tami Edgar, ending up safe and sound at home is good enough for them.

Besides assisting with many forest fires throughout the years, both Edgar and Kelly have helped on such recent high-profile situations as the tornadoes that devastated St. Peter and the Boundary Waters, the Red River Valley flooding and in the search for kidnapped Moose Lake resident Katie Poirier.

"Being a Forester is like being a farmer," said Kelly. "You focus on different things during different seasons."

The summer of 2000 will most likely be remembered by the duo as the season of massive, destructive forest fires. Cooler weather and some much-needed rainfall have diminished some of the western blazes, but many may not be extinguished until a substantial snowfall arrives and remains on the ground. For right now, Kelly and Edgar plan to stay put, at least until the next call for help.

If youre interested in becoming a volunteer wildland firefighter, contact the DNR at (507) 765-2740. A three-day training course is planned for October 24 26. Class size is limited to 30.

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