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Smoke chasers are on the go

Seven days a week for four months, smoke chasers based in Bemidji have been positioned throughout region, ready to be dispatched to fight wildland fires as they spark up.

With dangerously dry conditions, the local smoke chasers are serving well past the typical summer wildland fire season.

According to Sam Christenson, area forest supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry in Bemidji, the season usually ends the first or second weekend in June.

"Not this year," he said. "We've had fires every week, with the exception of one week, since the first week of April."

He said the season typically starts about the end of March.

"When the snow disappears is basically when the season begins," Christenson said.

With a coverage area ranging roughly from the north end of Cass County to the southern 30 miles of Beltrami County to the east end of Polk County to the northern end of Hubbard County - and all Clearwater County and Mahnomen County - local smoke chasers have had plenty of activity this season.

"Probably in the last month, we've averaged ... about two fires a day," Christenson said.

"We're over 160 fires this season so far that we've had to respond to," added Charles Krysel, DNR forester and fire program leader for the Bemidji area. "Normally, we would have our main fire season in the spring. Generally summertime, that's when we get our rain."

According to Christenson, the region has fallen into a weather pattern in which normal rainfall has not materialized.

"And the rainfall we have gotten is highly variable," he said.

If one area of the region gets rain one day, another spot just miles away might not receive any, he explained. Due to variable rainfall this summer, he said days off have been rare for the smoke chasers because the areas that don't receive rain must be staffed and protected.

Due to extremely dry conditions this summer, the DNR has kept most of the Bemidji area smoke chasers close to home, sending few to battle blazes out of state, Christenson added.

Some Bemidji smoke chasers, however, have just returned from assignments fighting the large wildfire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and some of the Roy Lake smoke chasers did go to Wyoming in early June.

"We haven't sent so many West because it's been so dry," Christenson said.

He noted that the local smoke chasers come from a variety of backgrounds, from career firefighters to farmers to college students. And for many, he added, chasing smoke gets in their blood.

"I think most people really do it because they just love the challenge of fighting fire," Christenson said.

"It's a good experience that not a lot of people get to share," added Paul Bergstrom of Bemidji, who is a Minnesota Conservation Corp staff member contracted by the DNR to fight wildland fires this summer. This is his second year working as a smoke chaser.

Also fighting area wildland fires for the DNR are members of Bergstorm's crew from the MCC: Justin Wood, Drew Seefeldt and Willie Boyle, all of Bemidji. All three are first-time smoke chasers.

Wood said being a smoke chaser is one of his favorite parts of working with the MCC.

"I think the fire aspect was a big draw for me," he added. "It's just kind of exciting. ... You really feel like you're helping out."

Seefeldt said he's been enjoying working with DNR employees and getting to know them better. Boyle noted that it's nice to know he and the other smoke chasers are saving area woodlands, which is a draw for many tourists.

"You know you're doing good when you're putting out fire," Boyle added.

Blake Johnson of Bemidji became a smoke chaser five years ago when he was a student at Bemidji State University.

"Now I teach at Voyageurs (Expeditionary High School in Bemidji) so I get to do this in the summertime," he said.

He said he decided to become a smoke chaser after he heard about his brother's experiences as a smoke chaser. With extremely dry conditions this summer, this is the first time Johnson has had extended employment as a smoke chaser.

"It's been very abnormal," he said of the summer wildland fire season this year.

Working so many days together has created a family-like atmosphere among the smoke chasers, which is one of the highlights of the job for Johnson.

"It's like one big family," he said. "It's like a second home."

According to Christenson, the smoke chasers typically work seven days a week with one day off every two weeks. If no fires are burning, their days start around 10 a.m. and end between 6-7 p.m.

But if there are ongoing fires, they might start their day around 5 a.m. or 6 a.m., when the temperature is cooler and it's easier to control a fire. Fires starting in the afternoon, on the other hand, may have the smoke chasers on the scene well into the night.

According to Krysel, the Bemidji area has about 70 smoke chasers available to fight wildland fires. They are seasonal, part-time employees.

Every morning, local smoke chasers receive a briefing at the DNR's Area Forestry Office in Bemidji and field stations within the coverage area - in Cass Lake, Guthrie, Bagley and Roy Lake - and are sent to areas that pose the greatest fire danger. Besides receiving their assignments during the briefing, they also are given a safety lesson of the day and receive a synopsis of the day's weather.

As lightening brightened the dark sky to the north of Bemidji during the Monday morning briefing, Casper Urbanek, one of the lead smoke chasers for the DNR in the Bemidji area, updated the smoke chasers that heavy rain was already falling in Bagley.

"So this could be intermittent spotty-type precip," he told the smoke chasers.

"Remember your fluid consumption, too," Christenson added. "It's still hot and you need to be drinking your fluids."