The crew walked along the road under smoky moonlight, clearing brush from houses while flames licked trees in the distance.
It’s a long way from home for Jake Sivertson, a Minnesotan working 16-hour days to help contain a record-settling blaze in California. But despite the distance and exhaustion, its exactly where he wants to be.
“You’re working long hours, long days, working hard to get your little piece of the puzzle done so the big picture can get completed,” the engine boss trainee said in a phone interview.
As California officials struggle with the Mendocino Complex Fire that’s scorched more than 450 square miles of northern forests, they have called on firefighters around the country and the world to help extinguish it. Ten of them are from the Minnesota Incident Command System, the state’s primary response team for wildfires that combines firefighters from federal, state and tribal agencies.
Sivertson’s three-man crew joined about 3,000 other firefighters outside Ukiah, Calif., on Aug. 5 after a 2,100-mile road trip in their Dodge Ram 4500. Like other firefighters deployed through Minnesota’s wildfire response system, they volunteered to be on call for the 14-day trip. The calls come based on the needs at that fire and the firefighters’ qualifications.
“The phone could ring in 10 minutes or it could ring in 10 days,” said Steve Sovinski, the engine boss on Sivertson’s crew. “Then you get an order to [go] somewhere in the country, wherever it came from and whoever needs that position.”
Many firefighters take multiple trips a year, spending weeks or months away from their families. But they say it’s worth it because they’re helping people in crisis — and gaining skills to fight fires back at home in Minnesota.
“[It helps to know what] you’ve seen before, what did work, what didn’t work and how to tackle the next situation you’re going into,” Sovinski said.
Many of the firefighters deployed through Minnesota’s wildfire command system are seasonal or temporary, but others like Sovinski and his crew have wildfire responsibilities paired with jobs as foresters, technicians and field office agents in the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Those who are full time and devoted to wildfires are often focused on prevention. The team currently has 190 firefighters working at sites in 10 different states including Montana, Texas and many states west of the Rocky Mountains.
Wildfires back home
Fire season in Minnesota is concentrated in the spring and fall, usually with a fraction of the fires faced by a state such as California. Dependable rainfall and mostly flat terrain limits the spread of blazes, especially now in the summer offseason.
“A lot of the state is so wet and green it’d almost have to rain gasoline [to start a fire],” said Ron Stoffel, wildfire operations supervisor with the DNR.
However, thousands of acres still burn every year, with the largest fires starting Up North. In 2011, a wildfire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness torched 156 square miles. This October will mark a century since the Cloquet-Moose Lake fire north of Duluth raced through 1,500 square miles, destroyed entire towns and villages, and left more than 450 people dead.
But as the state heads into what could be a drier-than-usual fall, the main message officials want to sell is prevention.
Most wildfires in Minnesota start due to man-made conditions, said Casey McCoy, fire prevention supervisor of the DNR’s Forestry Division. His team educates people about the importance of closely monitoring burning debris, campfires and other fire sources.
Often people don’t realize that some fires, especially large brush burnings on rural land, could smolder up to two weeks if left unattended, he said. Sometimes the message about proper fire preparation doesn’t sink in.
“Any kind of preparation like that is difficult to sell,” he said. “Because if it hasn’t happened in a given area, and especially if it’s been a long time, it’s tough to say, ‘Do this just in case.’ ”
That’s why Minnesota’s response team doesn’t want its fire knowledge to stagnate. In addition to responders gaining hands-on experience in California and elsewhere, they also review case studies from around the country to develop better techniques.
On the ground, firefighters see firsthand that fires have human consequences. Thousands of people are still displaced from their homes right now in Northern California. Sivertson and his crew want to extinguish the blaze so people can return to their lives.
“That’s what it’s about for me,” he said. “You feel good at the end of the day knowing you did something for [the community].”