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DNR Tanker base reactivated in response to dry weather

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Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Every spring after the snow melts and before the grass greens up, the water scoop plane and the firefighter helicopters take their places at the Bemidji Department of Natural Resources tanker base.

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The crews fly over the area looking for smoke and attack forest fires by dropping water on the blazes. Then, when the area becomes green enough for fire resistance, the crews take off for areas with higher fire danger.

This year, however, with no significant rain for nearly a month, has called the firefighters back to Bemidji.

"Memorial Day we're done usually," said Lee Schaar, tanker base manager. "We did close, but we opened again June 15."

The tanker and helittack crews were called back to their home base because of northern Minnesota's dry conditions and fire potential.

"Everything's dry in the northwest part of the state," said Schaar. "We're in the high (fire danger) category pretty much from Brainerd north."

"People are not aware of how bad it is," said Pete Moberg, helittack manager. "At this time of year, it's very unusual for us to be working. We're getting to the point where a cigarette out the window can start a fire."

Glen Znamirowski, a tanker pilot, said he and the rest of the crew members were working in Alaska until recently, but it started to rain, and there was more need here.

Schaar said they have responded to several small fires in the area and Saturday's 28-acre Carp Swamp Fire in an inaccessible swamp near Baudette.

The big, yellow CL215 planes can swoop down onto a lake and scoop up 1,400 gallons of water to dump on the flames. The water supply requirements include a mile of "runway," at least eight feet of water and no weeds. For example, Mary Locke, dispatcher, said Leech Lake is a no-scoop lake because the invasive Eurasian watermilfoil has been found there.

Znamirowski said they scooped water out of the Rainy River to fight the Carp Swamp Fire. "It's quite a ride," he said "We just got on the Baudette Airport frequency and announced what we were doing."

The CL215s have about a four-hour fuel capacity, but pilot George Leloup said the helicopters only have a range of about 90 minutes. Consequently, a fuel truck has to follow the fire, too.

The crew also includes a small Cessna fire spotter plane, which has replaced the old fire towers, and a twin-engine Beechcraft Queen Air.

"We radioed out pretty much as the air traffic in the sky," said Queen Air pilot Dan Moran.

He said the plane's tactical supervisor surveys the fire area, locates water sources and communicates with the firefighters on the ground, telling them where they can move their equipment and warning of dangers in their way. "So the tanker crew can focus on the fire and not have to talk to anybody," Moran said.

Schaar said no burning ban is in place, in spite of the dry conditions. "But people need to be careful," he said.

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