You’ve seen it and you’ve smelled it all summer long: smoke from the wildfires in Canada. Over the past three months, more than 5,000 wildfires have burned across Canada, scorching more than 27 million acres. Some Minnesotans have been on the front line of fighting the flames.
Our state has been answering the call for help thanks to something called the Great Lakes Forest Fire Compact. It’s a partnership where Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Manitoba and Ontario have all agreed to help each other out with firefighting.
So far three different groups of Minnesota firefighters have been sent to Manitoba.
Lori Barrow is a forester with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and joined Minnesota Now after spending 18 days working to fight wildfires in Canada.
Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.
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Our state has been answering the call for help, thanks to something called the Great Lakes Forest Fire Compact. It's a partnership where Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Manitoba, and Ontario have all agreed to help each other out with fire fighting. So far, three different groups of Minnesota firefighters have been sent to Manitoba. Lori Barrow is a forester with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and she's with us right now after spending 18 days working to fight those wildfires. My goodness, Lori. I saw some of the pictures you sent to my producer. It just looks like it's harrowing out there.
LORI BARROW: It's certainly an experience. It's unlike anything I've ever seen before. So, yeah.
CATHY WURZER: Oh, gosh. What has your role been in helping put out the flames?
LORI BARROW: Sure. So you mentioned the compact. It's a really good experience and a really great program where Minnesotans can go up and help our neighbors to the north. And I went up as part of a hand crew. It's kind of a boots on the ground operation, where we're working-- I was part of 15 folks who went up, and we did everything that you can imagine on a wildfire, from laying hose line, hiking in wilderness situations, doing helicopter runs to try to put out the flames, and then fighting fire directly with fire to slow and mitigate the spread of the flames. So we had a very harrowing experience, just like you said. [LAUGHS]
CATHY WURZER: Well, when you first arrived, try to describe the scene for listeners, because, again, the photographs are hair raising, really.
LORI BARROW: [LAUGHS] So we were given a really robust in briefing in Winnipeg prior to actually going up to the fire, the 27 fire, just northwest of Grand Rapids, Manitoba. And I've been a wildland firefighter for about five years now, and I've gone on western assignments. This was the closest to home that it felt fighting fire. I mean, this was international, of course, but I've never seen black smoke columns billowing up into the sky. And it certainly put us on edge. We were flown into the fire because it's in remote locations. And just seeing the extent and veracity of that, it was humbling.
CATHY WURZER: What's exactly going on up there? I mean, obviously, there's drought, right? But is something else happening to these-- don't they have tamarack trees, like we have here in Minnesota?
LORI BARROW: Yeah, so I'm a forester, first and foremost, and then we turn into wildland firefighters. And we're trained here at the DNR. And so going up there and seeing some of the extent of the forest, the forests are quite similar to what we have in Northern Minnesota, where we have large expanses of tamarack, spruce, jack pine. It's kind of why Minnesotans love Minnesota, is because the forest cover types.
But there have been large outbreaks of jack pine budworm, which top-kill trees. And when trees are stressed like that, it only exacerbates disease and outbreaks of insects. So they have large expanses, hundreds of thousands of acres of dead and dying jack pine, black spruce, and tamarack that just only further lets those wildfires roll when they get going in there, so.
CATHY WURZER: Oh, how terribly sad. You touched on this a little bit when you were describing what you were doing. And of course, many listeners have heard the phrase "fighting fire with fire," right? But that sounds like that's actually a tactic. Does it help?
LORI BARROW: Yes, it can be incredibly beneficial and help minimize any further loss of structures, communities, life even. So in Minnesota, we have a very robust training program. And we use-- well, prescribed fire is one way that people talk about it. But we also use wildfire to create black. So we talk a lot about fighting the black, fighting in the green. We create black where we go, and that means we're safe.
So we take the black with us, and we create safe zones off of areas that are in front of a fire so that the fuels are consumed so that we can protect structures or important sites prior to the fire getting there. So that's not a well-known tactic used in Canada. So we got to work with some of their initial attack crews there and lay fire down and train them up a little bit. And it was a really great learning experience and a great show of camaraderie among firefighters.
CATHY WURZER: The firefighters, such as yourself, are doing such a great job. But it seems like it's almost like such a losing battle. I mean, these fires have been going on, raging for months, right, with-- gosh, it doesn't seem like there's any end in sight. What's it going to take to put out these fires?
LORI BARROW: Mm. We get asked that question a lot. And you can't lose hope. There's hope. We all work together. We do this for a reason, but it's not going to be put out until the snow falls. And then we'll just keep doing it. We'll keep coming back and keep working to help protect our communities and protect our resources. And it's a great community in that way. And I think I speak for all wildland firefighters when it's a sense of duty when we love what we do.
CATHY WURZER: Mm-hmm. I can tell. I can hear that in your voice. Because you are a forester, first and foremost, fire can also, of course, regenerate a forest because it takes a while. But one of the first glimmers of life, when do you start to see that post-blaze, if that makes sense?
LORI BARROW: Yeah, that's actually a really great question and one that I just had the absolute privilege and joy and delight to see while I was up there. So it's pretty profound when you stand in a desolate, destructed, just absolute black area where all you think you see is maybe the stubs of some trees. And it looks like a barren landscape.
But if you have the right lens and if you have the right eyes and you know what to look for, so there's a whole community of plants and trees that are coming back. There's plants that are fire dependent, like our jack pine community. They depend on fire in order to open up. They have a waxy coating on their cones called a serotinous cone, and it takes wildfire to regenerate them.
So when I was out there, I was standing in a pretty desolate place. And everything around me was black. But I saw some downed jack pine and some downed spruce cones, and they were open. And that means that the forest is doing what the forest does best, which is taking care of itself.
CATHY WURZER: Good. Wow. Quite a story you have to tell, my friend. Lori, thank you for taking the time. I don't know if you're going to come back soon, but safe travels if you head back to Minnesota soon.
LORI BARROW: Oh, thank you.
CATHY WURZER: Lori Barrow is a forester with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
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