The state of Minnesota, though rich in water also has risk of loss due to wildfires. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has helped to support the growth of Firewise communities in the state. Their website has a photograph of a home that survived the Brainerd Bypass Fire in May 2002, because that homeowner had taken steps shared by the Firewise USA™ program to reduce their risk of loss.
I was fortunate to talk to Todd Armbruster the Cook County Firewise Coordinator for the last three years. Todd works for Cook County in Minnesota and works closely with Jeff Jackson the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Firewise Specialist for the Northeast part of the state. Todd shared a little bit about how well this community of 5,000 works with many other agency partners to reduce their risk of loss due to wildfire in Minnesota’s Boreal Forest ecosystem. They recognize the threat from wildfire especially after they experienced the loss of over 100 structures during the 2007 Ham Lake Fire that burnt 75,000 acres in their community. They also realize that it takes everyone working together to create safer communities.
Todd shared that in order to plan work projects, homeowners, members of volunteer fire departments, Cook County representatives, representatives from the US Forest Service and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources all meet once a month at the Grand Marias County Courthouse, to discuss project needs and funding available to work on helping Cook County Residents be safer from wildfire.
This active county has not only obtained and implemented two FEMA grants, 9 USDA Fuels grants, 10 DNR grants but also works with the US Forest Service and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to burn slash that is removed by residents at 6 designated sites located throughout the county. They even provide assistance to seniors and other seasonal residents in the county to make it more convenient to remove vegetative fuels by offering a once a year pickup of slash for residents by a boom truck if the material is piled in the driveway. This slash removal project is grant funded by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. County residents are even looking into ways to repurpose this biomass by working with the University of Minnesota, Duluth to try and determine how they best can use the vegetative materials. One thought has been to creating a biomass heating system.
I felt energized talking to Todd. He shared, “We have two well established (Firewise) communities and four more that are pending approval for recognition status. The interest in the Firewise Community program has grown over the past couple of years as we have increased outreach and mitigation activities. There have been several large fires in the Arrowhead of Minnesota over the past decade that have helped people realize the seriousness of living in a wildfire prone forested area.”
Todd referred me to Gary Maciejewski the Firewise contact for the Tait Lake Firewise Community. One of the first things that Gary shared with me was that “cooperation is key” to the success of their community. He shared that they have worked hard to create a good relationship with Cook County, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the local representatives of the US Forest Service.
These good working relationships have enabled them to complete project work on their homes, landscape surrounding the homes and improve fire suppression infrastructure such as installing new dry hydrants. They also work hard at building good community relationships with seasonal and full time residents by hosting events with fun, food and games to keep residents engaged and keep the lines of communication open in this small community. Their biggest event is held on the 4th of July due to the long winter season. They also have meetings in the spring and an event on Labor Day.
It was encouraging to learn what these Northern Minnesota Firewise Communities are doing to lessen their risk of loss due to wildfires. These residents are not only aware of their risks but have proactively created a sustainable way of working on lessening their risk of loss by having fun and working cooperatively with all of their partner agencies following guidelines from NFPA’s Firewise USA™ program.
[Editor’s Note: NFPA’s Firewise USA™ program will be sharing a series of articles about nationally recognized Firewise participant success stories from Northeast United States. Recently, Faith Berry interviewed residents from Cook County, Minnesota. They wanted to tell their story about how they are actively working toward creating neighborhoods that will be safer from wildfire loss.]