News that 19 elite “hotshot” firefighters were killed in Arizona Sunday weighed heavily on some of the more than 500 Minnesotans who might be called at any time to fight wild land fires across the United States.
“It’s definitely sobering,” said Don Mueller, an area forestry supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Cambridge, who was a hotshot himself nearly 20 years ago. “This is a tight-knit community. We certainly feel terrible about what happened.
Five Minnesota DNR employees were among roughly 400 firefighters continuing to battle an Arizona wildfire Monday, said Jean Goad, spokeswoman for the Interagency Fire Center based in Grand Rapids. The five were on a helicopter and likely either dropping water or helping move equipment, Goad said, and could not be reached.
Another 20 Minnesotans are in New Mexico, awaiting firefighting assignments. During a normal fire season, about 50 Minnesota firefighters from various state, federal and local agencies might typically be on duty in other states at any one time, Mueller said.
But Minnesota is not home to any hotshot crews, like the one caught in the deadly Arizona blaze. Hotshots train together and work as teams during fire season. Minnesota firefighters receive similar training but are known as Type 2 Initial Attack personnel, and keep their regular jobs in a wide range of public agencies.
Firefighters killed at the Yarnell fire apparently deployed their portable emergency fire shelters, which Mueller described as “absolutely the last resort” in a wildfire.
Jacob Beauregard, rural fire programs specialist for the Minnesota DNR, based in Willow River, demonstrated Monday how a firefighter, who might be carrying 40 pounds of tools, food, water and even gasoline to run chain saws, would likely have to toss all the equipment aside, open up the 5-pound pack containing what’s essentially a body bag made of Fiberglas-lined reflective material to ward off heat, and wrap himself or herself in it on the ground. In training, the deployment has a 20-second time limit. In an intense fire on rugged terrain, it might take 40, Mueller said. He added that said the shelters offer protection in an intense fire for perhaps 15 minutes; a person inside could still die of smoke inhalation or burns.
Of several Minnesota wildfire officials contacted Monday, none knew of any firefighters killed fighting fires on wild lands in Minnesota. But during the fight to extinguish the Pagami Creek fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness two years ago, six U.S. Forest Service crew members on a mission to evacuate campsites were forced to deploy shelters when conditions changed suddenly, said Tim Dabney, a deputy forest supervisor for the Superior National Forest Service.
Paddling in three pairs, they couldn’t get out ahead of the fire fast enough and suddenly were trapped in thick smoke with embers raining down. They knew they had to get under their shelters, he said.
“It’s a very frightening experience knowing you’re down to your last tool,” Dabney said. “There’s no guarantee you’ll survive. It’s your last chance. Your last tool.”
Staff writer Mary Lynn Smith contributed to this report.
Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646