Weather Forecast


Managing the unexpected

SUNBURG -- Managing prescribed burns on a modern landscape requires lots of planning and preparation, but things still don't always go as expected.

That's why prescribed burns are conducted by specially trained workers, and why the experience of someone like Bill Clausen- who devoted much of his career to fighting wild fires- can be so important.

Like every prescribed burn, the May 6 burn on the Freeze Waterfowl Production Area in northern Kandiyohi County was years in the making. Scott Glup, project manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said preparations were started on the site one year ago with the felling of trees.

Landowners were consulted, and a burn plan as detailed as a Brad Childress game plan was scripted and ready when a crew of 14 headed to the site with four-wheel ATV's, pumpers and other equipment for any eventuality.

An early morning spot weather forecast from the National Weather Service promised perfect conditions for the site. The special forecasts give hour-by-hour details on everything from wind speeds and direction, humidity and the Haines Index, which tells whether the smoke will rise high into the sky or hang low to the ground.

At the site, back fires were lit to create a blackened perimeter before the main fire was set. Clausen, as fire boss, saw that the hour-by-hour wind forecast showed a steady southwest to northeast blow, and the main fire was set accordingly.

Everything was going according to plan when suddenly strong, northwesterly winds that were not forecast bore down on the site. The winds were able to carry an ember across the fire-line boundary of blackened grass and ignite a blaze on the bottom of a hill in an adjacent Waterfowl Production Area marsh. The wind-driven flames raced up the hill and spread quickly into the mix of dry grasses and cattails.

Rather than attempt to stomp out the fire in a cattail marsh, Clausen sent his men to protect private property adjacent to the site while also setting a back fire. Support was called from the USFWS crew in the Morris district, and soon the escaped fire was contained and the crew went back to work on the 500 plus acres they came to burn in the first place.

Having extra equipment available on site, and back up help available at a moment's notice were both important to quickly controlling the fire, said Glup. Having an experienced fire boss able to make the right calls when the weather threw a kink into the game plan mattered no less.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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