When the chips were down, northeastern Minnesota's loggers stepped up.
U.S. Forest Service officials say efforts by the region's loggers played a major role in helping stem the spread of the Greenwood Fire near Isabella.
“It was a remarkable effort by them,” James McFarland, U.S. Forest Service Superior National Forest natural resources staff officer said. “They set things aside to assist and it was greatly appreciated.”
The lightning-caused fire broke out Aug. 15 about 10 miles southwest of Isabella.
As temperatures in the 90s and brisk winds drove the fire, loggers were called in to assist.
About 30 pieces of logging equipment, each with an operator, created 100-foot wide fuel breaks along Minnesota State Highway 1 between Lake County Highway 2 and the town of Isabella.
Loggers also cleared a swath along about 15-20 miles of Stony River Grade Road, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
“I think it was real important for the loggers to be up there to cut the firelines,” Blake Fjeran, a logger from Two Harbors said. “There's still some hot spots and if it sparks up again, at least they have fire lines in place.”
Logging crews worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week to harvest trees along the roadways to help reduce the fuel load and slow the fire spread.
“It gives firefighters a better chance of containing the fire along major routes and it makes it safer for back burns,” Joe Mundell, a U.S. Forest Service resource advisor and technical specialist on the Greenwood Fire said. “It was nice to see the collaboration between the loggers as well.
At least 2,000 cords of wood in 16-foot and 20-foot lengths was harvested from roadsides, Mundell said. The wood was cut in longer lengths to make the fuel reduction operation more efficient, he said.
Logging companies from Grand Marais, Ely, Finland, Ely, Isabella, Barnum, Two Harbors, and other northland communities, stepped up to help.
Other than seeing logging trucks headed to mills, loggers' work is often unseen by the public.
But their work on the Greenwood Fire was on full display, logging officials say.
“The reason why loggers are so successful at this is they are professionals,” Mike Forsman, Associated Contract Loggers & Truckers of Minnesota executive director said. “This is what they do every day. They're experts at doing this.”
As of Friday, the wildfire was 54 percent contained. The total acreage was estimated at 26,797 acres, up from 26,112 acres a day earlier due to more accurate mapping, according to the forest service. A total of 367 personnel are still working on the fire, extinguishing pockets of heat, cleaning up debris and securing perimeters.
The American Loggers Council say the loggers' effort is a case study of effective collaboration and a success in containing and preventing the fire from jumping roads.
Loggers and their mechanized equipment need to be integrated into wildfire response strategies to quickly establish firebreaks and assist in containment and protection of property, logging officials say.
“Just like the role that loggers play in sustainable forest management and maintaining healthy forests, these loggers responded to the front lines to protect the forests,” Scott Dane, American Loggers Council executive director said. “The salvage and utilization of the cleared timber before it burned is another example of responsible forest management.”
Northeastern Minnesota loggers have assisted in previous wildfires such as the 92,000-acre Pagami Creek Fire in 2011.
However, until the Greenwood Fire, it's been years since loggers were enlisted to help.
“Engaging loggers in fighting fires is not something new in the country,” McFarland said. “But here in Minnesota, we don't do it on a year-to-year basis. We don't get big fires that often, but they really jumped to the cause when we had a need.”
But they couldn't get in to help immediately.
Some loggers say they were frustrated with the amount of red tape, bureaucracy, and time it took for them to be allowed to work on creating fire lines.
With basic fire safety training and other government requirements needed for loggers to assist, it took a few days to get loggers, their feller bunchers, skidders, trucks, and bulldozers onto the scene, forest officials said.
“We had a little stumbling at the beginning of the first week to get them out there on the fire to get a line around it,” McFarland said. “We had programs they needed to sign up for and that took a while. I think definitely not only the forest officials, but our partners learned through this experience.”
Loggers are paid for their work on the wildfire.
Overall, Fjeran said collaboration between loggers and the various local, county, state, and federal agencies went well.
“They've been really good to work with,” Fjeran said. “All the people up there have been great.”
The forest service will continue to utilize loggers and work with the American Loggers Council, Associated Contract Loggers & Truckers of Minnesota, and Timber Producers Association on future wildfires, McFarland said.
“It was a great collaboration between the industry and the managers,” McFarland said. “We worked closely and there were a lot of great takeaways. Hopefully, we can be more efficient in how we can use industry partners in these events.”
The forest service and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) plan to sell the harvested wood, McFarland said.
For now, it's stockpiled near the fire scene.
“We're identifying opportunities to sell it as soon as possible,” McFarland said. “We're looking at putting it up for auction with the DNR through their Good Neighbor project.”
Minnesota each year grows about three times more timber than is harvested.
That, along with areas of blowdown, trees defoliated due to spruce budworm infestation, and a need for more wood products mills to accept timber, loggers remain concerned about the future.
“I don't think it's going to get any better,” Fjeran said. “Especially with the (spruce) budworm. It's the perfect factor for more fires.”
The fire on Aug. 23 destroyed 14 primary structures and 57 outbuildings.