MNR fire base a beehive of activity

FORT FRANCES—Having to deal with one of the busiest fire seasons in recent years, the Ministry of Natural Resources’ Forest Fire Management Centre here in Fort Frances has seen 187 fires since April 1—more than double the average number of 83.
And while there’s been a temporary lull in the Fort Frances District (with the exception of Quetico Park, where nearly all of the district’s active fires continue to burn), a tour of the fire headquarters here Saturday offered a look at a complex team structure that’s always busy and ever-vigil.
“There’s tremendous co-ordination between the top and the bottom,” explained my tour guide, fire information officer Tony Elders, adding the jobs at the base here range from fire management supervisor, sector response officer, and logistics boss to radio operator, fire management technician, and FireRanger.
All of these people work together to ensure not only that fires are detected, monitored, and actioned, but make sure those out in the field (whether it’s firefighters or aircraft) are efficiently utilized and kept safe.
“It’s like juggling 100 balls at a time,” Elders said of all the factors that go into the decision-making at the fire base on any given day.
While staff are in the office at all hours (often working 10-12 hours days even when it’s not busy), the true start of the day usually is the 10 a.m. planning and briefing meeting, which often determines the course of the day for supervisors and management as well as those in the field.
At this time, the acting sector response officer, in this case Murray Haase from Kirkland Lake (filling in for local MNR officer Gary Harland), goes over information with staff, including those at the forward attack bases in Quetico Park and Vedette Lake.
This information includes:
•the previous day’s weather conditions;
•current weather conditions and the forecast for that day;
•overnight lightning activity;
•the existing fire situation (any active fires and their status);
•predicted fire occurrence (both human- and lightning-caused); and
•predicted fire growth (categorized by fuel type).
Firefighting strategy and tactics also are discussed, as well as what preventive measures are in place (Restricted Fire Zones, bridge programs, radio ads, etc.), service issues, aircraft alerts, where crews are assigned, and any possible safety concerns.
Depending on the fire activity on a given day, and the fire hazard index, decisions stemming from this meeting could mean firefighter crews are dispatched to a fire, taken off a fire, or moved around where they’re needed most.
More than just responding to new fires, MNR fire management take great efforts to anticipate fire activity so they can be prepared—and keep crews safe.
“We’re always trying to look ahead,” said fire management supervisor Harrold Boven.
Working in the “nerve centre” of the MNR fire base here is Heather Herbert, radio operator and assistant fire management clerk (Laurie McQuarrie is the fire management clerk).
Herbert’s job is a hectic one as she’s responsible for tracking personnel—where they are, where they’re going, and how long they’ve been working (firefighters only can work a maximum of 19 days in a row).
Currently, the Fort Frances MNR base has seven three-person crews available to fight fires. Normally, that complement is 10 four-person crews, but the job is seasonal, with many of the firefighters being students who have since gone back to school.
Depending on the level of fire activity, some may be on stand-by here while others are spread between the forward attack bases at Quetico and Vedette Lake, or in other parts of the region lending aid.
Almost constantly on the radio, Herbert also dispatches transportation to and from fires, as well as monitors aircraft traffic.
When it is time for the crews to head out, they have to be equipped not only to fight fires but to stay safe, eat, and sleep. That’s where logistics boss Colin Langford comes in.
Langford is in charge of ordering supplies for the local base and the two forward attack ones, whether that be fuel, food, or equipment, as well as addressing maintenance and contract management issues.
Not only does he handle the orders, but he has to calculate resources, like how long food or fuel will last at a particular attack base, and when it will need more.
And Langford also has to make sure fire crews arrive and depart when and where they’re supposed to, as well as ensure they have a place to stay wherever they are.
He noted it’s been an extremely busy season for logistics, as well as other departments, citing the second weekend of September, when some 50 new fires were reported in Fort Frances District alone, as a particularly hectic time for himself.
But where do all the supplies come from? That’s where the warehouse operations comes in. At the local fire management base, shipper/receiver Brent Rau gave a brief tour Saturday.
Rau’s job is to ensure the crews get what they need, whether that’s food, water, flame-resistant clothes, lanterns, hoses, radios, coveralls, rain suits, bug spray, foot powder, or water pumps.
And for quick and efficient deployment, many pieces of equipment, such as chainsaws and pumps, already are put together in kits.
The warehouse building here also is a fire crew area and a retrieval area (where tools and equipment can be tested and fixed).
< *c>On site
After spending time at the fire headquarters here, I also got to get out in the field, flying in a Bell Jet Ranger II with Elders, MNR fire management technician Arlan Hahkala, and pilot Don Kennedy to the site of Fort Frances Fire #128.
While there were no flames nor smoke visible anywhere Saturday, at one point the fire in the Preacher Lake area, just west of Burditt Lake (about 30 km north of Emo), had grown to 26 hectares in size.
The fire, which first was reported around 1:45 p.m. back on Thursday, Sept. 7, was caused by lightning striking a poplar tree, then leapt to a second tree, causing it to start fire and break in two—spreading the flames.
The fire was attacked by waterbombers from Dryden and Kenora, with Manitoba also providing support with a quick strike air attack from Gimli.
Then four MNR ground crews came in and put down hoses, creating a perimeter around the fire to suppress it.
Some area residents temporarily left their homes but returned within a day of doing so, and no values (i.e., structures or equipment) were lost.
By this past Saturday, the site of the fire was clear of smoke and infrared imaging scans taken that morning had indicated no smouldering areas.
Remaining crews on site spent the day using tools to dig around and search for any signs of burning.
Crew leader Mark Dillon from Chapleau, who was heading up a firefighter team from Timmins, gave me a tour of an island and pointed out that when a fire is no longer visibly burning, MNR firefighters take great care to remain on scene and ensure it’s no longer in danger of flaring up.
For instance, they’ll use techniques like “cold trailing” to actually feel inside stumps to check for residual heat after a fire.
But the best tools of all, said Dillon, is your nose and eyes. “You can always smell it before you see it,” he said, referring to smoke.
Dillon noted as we rode an ATV across the rugged terrain that firefighting staff are trained to pinpoint the causes of forest fires, and use details such as scorching on rocks and trees to determine the direction and intensity of them.
“Every little thing that burns leaves a little story in a fire investigation,” he remarked.
He noted that, all in all, this fire wasn’t too hard to handle, especially after the initial waterbomber attacks did such a good job of preventing it from spreading across the lake.
As of yesterday, this fire still was considered “being held” by the MNR. And though no crews are on site there anymore, the area is being monitored daily with thermal imaging equipment.
< *c>Reflection
The helicopter ride back to the airport offered a chance for me, a first-time passenger in a chopper, to catch an eyeful of the forests below and marvel at its beauty (Hahkala even spotted a moose which, unfortunately, ducked into cover before I could catch it on film).
The contrast between the blackened remains of the 26.4-ha. patch of land burned out by Fire #128 and the seemingly never-ending blanket of autumn foliage below us—a patchwork of green, gold, red, and orange—was striking.
And it made me appreciate that the men and women of the MNR fire management team keeps working so hard, in a complex yet co-ordinated effort, to ensure fires that endanger our forests are kept under control.
(Fort Frances Times)