Minnesota Fire Taxes Air Assets

 - December 3, 2011, 4:05 AM

One of the largest and longest-lasting wildfires in the Midwest significantly taxed available helicopter assets, destroyed nearly 100,000 acres and sent smoke plumes into the sky that could be detected by satellites and smelled as far as 450 miles away in Chicago. Across Lake Superior, parts of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula were enveloped in dense smoke for days.  

The Pagami Creek fire began in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area on August 18 after a lightning strike. The half-acre fire grew to 130 acres in the remote, one-million-acre recreational area near Ely, Minn., before firefighters were called in to manage it. On September 5, a controlled burn, intentionally ignited by helicopters dropping jellied gasoline, increased the fire’s size to 2,000 acres. This burn-out was supposed to make the fire easier to manage.

It didn’t. Unseasonably high temperatures of 85 degrees F, winds of more than 30 knots and ample dead wood on the forest floor that remained from a 477,000-acre derecho in 1999, combined to explode the fire by 15 miles, from 10,000 to 60,000 acres, in less than 24 hours on September 12. The firestorm took firefighters and campers by surprise. It moved so rapidly that it forced some firefighters to huddle under portable fire shelters to survive. And then it just kept growing.

Fire Control from the Air

Fixed-wing Forest Service Beavers, an Air Tractor 802 Firehawk, and Canadian CL-215 and CL-415 water bombers were called in, but they weren’t enough. The Minnesota National Guard dispatched a pair of UH-60 Black Hawks with fire buckets and the Forest Service summoned a Columbia Helicopters Boeing 234 (Chinook) and a Helicopter Transport Services S-64 Air Crane. They were joined by Bell 206s that were used to fly spotters and to long-line in equipment to fire crews who had no other way of getting it in the remote wilderness.

In all, eight helicopters were used to support the firefighting, and air operations extended more than six weeks and contributed to firefighting costs that top $23 million. At the fire’s apex, these aircraft were dropping nearly 1 million gallons of water a day. 

Mike Balch, chief pilot for Scott’s Helicopter Services, flew on the fire in a Bell 206 for 35 days, flying three to six hours a day in a schedule that was 12 days on, two days off. In little more than a month he logged 110 hours. Balch flew in pumps, hoses and equipment pallets. “Pretty much the whole thing was supported by air,” he said of the firefighting efforts. “It was a major airshow.” He didn’t get off the fire until October 22.

“It was a good fire,” Balch said.

Not everyone in Minnesota is so sure. The Forest Service’s decision to light the “burn-out” and delay in calling in firefighters and aircraft is being roundly criticized.

By the end of October, aircraft and firefighters had been removed, but the fire was still burning in a few bogs and other limited “hot spots.”