[Music] A lot of people that fought fire had very little or no training up until probably sometime in the 70's sometime.
[Music] As a profession, wildland firefighting is relatively new.
[Music] We have a lot of, I would call it the next generation of firefighters.
There is going to be a great need to train those firefighters and to prepare them for what they face.
[Music] Production costs for this program have been made possible by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, with money by vote of the people, November 4th, 2008.
[Music] There was really no organized fire suppression in the U.S, to any great extent, until about 1910.
Historically, when the logging industry came in the late 1800's, Chicago was pretty much built from Minnesota wood, and it created a lot of slash.
And, at the same time, you had a lot of farmers coming in clearing land to do the farming.
So they were burning slash piles and that.
So, you know, all these sources, and, at the same time, a lot of fuel to burn.
[Music] The Great Lakes states have suffered some of the most disastrous fires in North American history.
[Music] Probably the most significant early fire was the Hinckley fire in 1894 that burned about 280,000 acres, and there was like 420 official deaths.
[Music] There was a Chisholm fire that destroyed the whole city of Chisholm.
[Music] The birth of the Minnesota Forest Service, they called it at the time, the State Forestry Agency, was after the 1910 Baudette-Spooner fire.
[Music] It burned both those towns to the ground, killed 42 people.
[Music] 1918, that was the middle of World War One, and they nationalized the railroads then, and they claimed that the Moose Lake-Cloquet fire started from multiple sources from railroads.
That killed 438 people, and it was a little over a million acres.
[Music] A lot of people, I'm sure, have seen pictures of Cloquet where all that's standing are the chimneys from the houses that burned down.
[Music] The early Minnesota government decided that, you know, we have to do something about this, so they hired General Christopher Columbus Andrews as the first fire warden.
Before that, he'd been a strong promoter for more management of our forest lands because he'd learned that in Sweden when he was over there.
He said that humans can't put out these fires, but we can prevent them.
And so that was a big impetus was getting on the prevention part of it.
When Andrews came in, they allowed him to hire a few forest rangers they called them, and there were more prevention-type people trying to control things.
And they ran out of money so they laid them off 6 weeks before the Baudette fire.
Of course, big reaction to that.
In 1911, then, they established an actually permanent firefighting force, and that's where the Division of Forestry was born.
They developed a system of outpost offices.
There was one in Bemidji.
J. L. Johnson was the first supervisor there.
That was in 1911.
I think the first fire codes were developed in 1925 or so, where there were now fire wardens and fire lookouts and people assigned to put out fires because you just couldn't keep having these conditions as they were.
The way you fought fires in those days was just, basically, digging, basically you're digging a line.
It was assumed that anybody could do it.
They would empty the bars.
They would go to skid row in Seattle and go to the bars in Spokane and Missoula and empty the bars and bring these people out because it was figured anybody could do it.
Traditionally, that became the way that it was done.
There were very few people who did it year-round.
It became seasonal.
It was relatively low paid.
[Music] The professionalism that we are striving for now, and to a certain degree have attained, in wildland fire, is relatively new.
You know, this academy, for example, is only 20 years old.
This week we have the Minnesota Wildland Firefighter Academy.
We are offering 23 courses, including a emergency vehicle operation course.
We did the first one in 2000, you know, and it's been a demonstration of how much more seriously we consider training.
We did not train people very well, you know, 25 to 30 years ago.
The suppression techniques have now evolved to the point where, you know, you need specialists.
You know you don't empty the bars anymore and pay them a dollar a day, okay.
It's a little more complicated than that.
Small as you can and it'll stay pretty tight.
The students range from the various agencies that are involved in wildland fire fighting: Minnesota DNR, U.S Forest Service, U.S Fish and Wildlife, National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs.
We also have our partners with the tribal units here in Minnesota that send students.
We have our structure fire departments.
There's both classroom portions as well as what we call the field portions.
The students attend that classroom portion, which is kind of that book learning part and instructor-led, and then the hands-on skills portion, for example, is like our power saws.
Everybody in the country that gets involved in wildland firefighting takes a class called S-130, S-190 and L-180.
It's the foundation of our fire training program.
Everyone needs to go through that five-day course.
They have probably about seven stations out there: a water handling station, a map and compass station, of course line, you know, preparation and line digging.
Another course is our pumps.
We have an actual classroom portion on pumps, and pumps are obviously a very important function in wildland firefighting.
The helicopters during the week doing proficiency drops and cargo management and sling loads and a lot of different moving parts here at the academy.
All the states and the federal agencies all combine.
They set standards for national training.
If you're a ground support unit leader in Minnesota, you're nationally qualified.
You can do that job anywhere in the country.
If we need someone like that we just put the order in, and we will get one, and they'll know what they're doing because they've had the training and experience.
That's part of this whole rationale for this academy this week, other than giving knowledge; it is also to establish credentials and get people carded as we say.
If you're going to take measurements always use the same... A lot of our experienced, and folks that have spent decades fighting firefighting, have retired.
We want to try and capture that knowledge and make sure it's transferring to the next generation of firefighters before they do retire.
And, you know, that plethora of information that has been gathered in fire they typically refer to those as like slides.
So you have all these experiences, and they're just slides that you pull from, and so we want all those slides to be transferred now to the new generation.
You still have your smoke chasers, your casual hires.
The next level there are seasonal permanent employees, fire response leads and fire technicians.
And then you have the leadership of the next level at the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center, for example, or at the Regional Offices.
And there are also, of course, in the Minnesota DNR, all of the forestry division people are considered firefighters.
That's the basic hierarchy.
The newest firefighters are Firefighter 2's, basically people that have had the training but very little to no experience.
They're out there under very close supervision and at the direction of somebody with more experience.
As a Firefighter 2 you're the person operating a Pulaski, which is a hand tool or a shovel, maybe being on the end of a hose off of a fire engine or a ladder bag or pump can.
And so really that person is the one out there doing the bulk of the work.
As you progress, you progress to a Firefighter 1 or squad boss type position, which means that you've demonstrated that you can work, you're independent, safe, and that position supervises the Firefighter 2 position.
As your fire expands, we have a concept called Incident Command System that was developed back in the 70s, 80s that positions would be modular and you could use them as you need them.
But as you expand you develop layers of supervision.
So, if we go from 8 people to 16 people, we'll have a person supervising maybe three or four groups there instead of somebody supervising 16 individual people.
It is very interesting because even when I was a smoke chaser, once we had a fire, I could be the incident commander, and the person who actually signed my paycheck might be working for me that day, you know.
There was a non-rigid hierarchy because of the ICS.
It's a very military style organization with command and control from the top to the bottom.
The building here is the Interagency Fire Center.
All the agencies that fight fire in the state have a representative here.
I don't know that there's another place in the country that operates the way we do except for the National Interagency Fire Center where all the agencies are together.
It used to be that the Bemidji district, for example, would have a fire so they'd go out and put it out.
But if they saw a fire and it was in the Cass Lake District, it might have been only two miles away, and rather than go to it they call Cass Lake and the Cass Lake guy would say "No, no.
We'll go take care of that."
Well, can you imagine the DNR and the Forest Service, it was the same thing with them.
So like in 76, the forest service would be fighting their fires, they bring in an overhead team.
The DNR would be fighting our fires and we'd bring in an overhead team.
Nobody was really working together.
And the guys that started this, like Carson Berglund was one of them and another guy was Bob Jones and he worked for the forest service, said this is kind of silly that we're duplicating all this effort and they kind of said well we got to start working together, and they kind of started this whole organization now where we pretty seamlessly work together.
We don't really care, for the most part, what color truck shows up.
If it's a Forest Service truck or a DNR truck, we go get the job done and then sort this other stuff out later.
Every situation is somewhat different.
But, essentially, you know, the overall thing that happens you get you get dispatched and for The Wildland Agency it is either through 9-1-1, a 9-1-1 call just like any emergency, or from one of our detection aircraft, fixed-wing aircraft, that basically replaced the fire towers.
And then the local unit here would dispatch who's closest to it at the time.
You get a quick size up from the air and it, you know, you might say, "Well, you're gonna need a couple engines."
Or if it looks like it's in a really hazardous spot you may say, "Well, I might recommend ordering some air attacks."
You know you set up what's called a unified command under the ICS, and you both work the fire.
If it gets out of their control, you know, you just keep adding resources, and you could get to the place where you're pulling in people from Hibbing and Forest Service and fire departments and you can beef up pretty fast in that regard.
It's just like a fire department, you can call mutual aid from the neighbors if you got more than what you can.
You can't staff up for every fire, it's just too expensive, but you have a system like that.
So we can call the neighbors for help if we need it, and we will go help them.
We send resources out of Minnesota every year to go to the western fires.
With that it's kind of a reciprocal thing because when we get in a bind we call in resources.
One of the concepts with wildland firefighting is you take the fuel away from the fires.
We start at the base of a fire, basically where the fire started, and we follow it and we put it out as we go until we get to the the head of the fire.
And then we kind of pinch it off.
Now how you do that?
Oh, you could do it with a dozer, you could do it with backpack pumps-water, you could do it with a hose lay, you could do it with a tracked vehicle that is pumping water, you could do it with aircraft, you could let it burn to a natural barrier.
I mean, you know, the number of tactics you have at your disposal, it's quite extensive.
Hopefully it's all good, no damage.
We put out any smoldering debris that's left, and that's called mop up.
You've listened to it in a classroom, and some of the more experienced firefighters tell stories, we like to call them war stories, about how things went and the great campaigns of hitting these large fires and putting them out.
The very first one I was on was was just me and a technician from Park Rapids, and we showed up and it was a little fire on the edge of a swamp that was by a house and all I remember is I wish I had rubber boots because I didn't have any at the time.
So because, you know, most fires in Minnesota you don't get out of it without getting wet feet.
Very first one I worked on, well I think it was the first one, I was walking in water, on ice, and this grass and I'm putting out the grass that was burning and after I got done with that and I was shivering I kind of looked around and thought, you know, I could have let that burn out from the swamp and put it out in the high ground.
You know, you start learning things like that, like, you know, you can let it burn a little bit.
You can burn out from a road or that.
My career path tracked pretty much like I wanted it to.
I spent a summer out in Alaska fighting fire, building trail in the back country.
So I don't think I have one really big standout war story as much as a million little experiences that just create 20 years of adventure.
I remember the first time I went to a large fire, a very large fire.
We flew to Southern California.
We landed in Los Angeles, got on a bus, and we drove towards this fire, and it was evening or late evening, probably sunset, and as we're driving we could see the fire in the distance, but as we drove we drove for two more hours and we could still see the fire.
And that's something I had never encountered before.
The first night fire is another thing- you see the big glow in the air and you're thinking, you know, this is a holocaust or something, but that's probably a grass fire burning out there.
But that gets adrenaline up, until you get out there, and then you get used to it.
You can't control Mother Nature very well.
You can control, kind of, the things that come off of what Mother Nature does as you work along.
And pretty soon you've taken that fire that was out of control, and you've controlled it and put it out.
It's a pretty good feeling.
You know you're working hard, and you develop a bond with the firefighters, your brothers and sisters, you're working with.
You'd work 21 days, 16 hours a day, side by side with these same folks, and you've gone through some things together.
And there's some pride there that you've done this, you've helped folks.
And you get that community feeling with the firefighters, and it's a pretty tight-knit community.
I've met people that I've worked with for two or three weeks, and I don't see them for four years and you come back together and you still have that bond.
There's a certain camaraderie that comes with just that day in day out lifestyle of, you know, you eat with each other, your sleeping bags and tents are next to each other, and you're digging line, you know, working really hard, and you have each other's back.
I think fire fighting is one thing that it's good to have, you know, learn the technical aspects of it, the strategies and that, but it's a more experienced-based thing.
From the time I started and Doug, too, to what it is now is like astronomically different.
We went from here's your shovel to, you know, now, you know, you take your basic firefighting and you just work your way up.
It's important to remember that a lot of wildland firefighters are still seasonal.
Now they're getting paid better.
There's more access to benefits, to training, and all the rest of it.
But a lot of, sort of the backbone, are still seasonal employees.
And one reason I was able to make a career out of it because I was willing, after our fire seasons here, to go other places.
This career draws in, you know, far and away very young people from that 18 to probably 25 range is a very popular age dynamic here.
And so you want adventure, and it's the best way to see some landscapes that you normally don't get to, but know that you're also, you know, out there doing your job and making a difference.
It's not for everyone.
And, you know, a lot of people find that being a wildland firefighter does not necessarily jive with the conventional American Dream.
Okay, it just doesn't.
In fact, right now on the national level perhaps you've heard some of the news stories that they're having a hard time retaining firefighters for that reason, the pay.
The fire seasons are becoming almost a year-round thing, and people are just burning out big time.
You have to really enjoy it at some basic level or you're not going to last.
You know everybody understands this, and so there have been moves within the Minnesota DNR and in the federal agencies to make it a little bit of a sweeter deal for people so that you can retain people and so that they can continue to do this wildland fire and still have a decent life.
It is in a state of flux right now.
You know, with the climate change, there is no doubt that it's having a huge impact on the incidence of wildland fire, you know, particularly west of the Mississippi.
The backbone of the western fire suppression, where the Type 1 Crews, the Hotshot Crews, they are staffed mainly by people paying their way through college.
Before, when early September was all over, well that was fine, we went to school.
Well, you know, that's not working too well anymore because if you go back to school, the fires are still burning.
We have a lot of what we refer to as urban interface, and we have folks that have built into those wilderness areas.
But now it's big homes, and you know, that are built into that landscape which really creates some difficult issues for us to fight fires.
Eventually we're going to have to switch to a more permanent type wildland firefighting force where there isn't just these casual hire people that the federal government and the states do.
You're going to have to have a person on seven months out of the year, ten months out of the year.
Yeah, I've been kind of proud to be in this organization, not because of me, but because of the people I work with because I think of all the different agencies I've had some experience with around the country, different states, I think Minnesota is one of one of the tops.
We have really come a long way in our leadership training, in the way that we develop leaders.
We have come a long way in all the human factors about how people communicate, how people make decisions under stress.
We've made huge strides in that.
What I've seen is we have a lot of young -I would call it the next generation of firefighters- there is going to be a great need to train those firefighters and to prepare them for what they face on the fire ground.
Over the last 20, 30 years I have seen a lot of improvements in training, in the way we organize things, in equipment, all of that.
So yeah, we have made a lot of progress.
It's hard work.
It's dangerous work.
This next generation, we hope that they can stand up and meet that demand, meet that challenge.
Because we really need to have those wildland firefighters.
Wildland fire is, you know, 95 percent drudgery.
It really is.
You do it for the 5 percent of the time when it's the best gig in the world, you know, when you feel sorry for everyone who isn't able to do it.
[Music] [Music] Production costs for this program have been made possible by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund with money by vote of the people, November 4th, 2008.