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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

A burning experience

VCC students in prescribed burn ‘classroom’

Keith Vandervort
Posted 5/12/22

ELY – With the snow just recently melted, fire season is up and running in northern Minnesota. About 20 students in the Wildland Fire Control and Management class at Vermilion Community College …

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A burning experience

VCC students in prescribed burn ‘classroom’


ELY – With the snow just recently melted, fire season is up and running in northern Minnesota. About 20 students in the Wildland Fire Control and Management class at Vermilion Community College here took their classroom lessons into the field late last week and participated in a prescribed burn on the north edge of the campus.
This is one of the capstone classes for those VCC students in the Natural Resource Technology program, according to instructor Ryan Miller.
“These second-year students all have fire qualifications, chainsaw experience and were at the point to do the prescribed burn field work,” he said.
Nearly two acres of marsh grass just off Savoy Road was ignited Thursday morning. Fire fighters from the Ely Fire Department were on hand with a water tanker while students followed procedures they learned in the classroom to ignite and monitor fires designed to reduce fire fuels.
The late arrival of spring in the Ely area nearly beat out the last day of VCC classes this week, but conditions were ripe for a prescribed burn field day.
“Those grasses and the ground dried quickly,” Miller said. “We were shooting for about 75-perent consumption but we had closer to 90-percent consumption that day.”
Historically, most field grass type ecosystems burn about every three to seven years or so.
“The grasses build up, and with lightning strikes the grasses burn. We are trying to keep the grasses in this area in a natural cycle,” Miller explained. “It keeps that ecosystem healthy.”
Miller takes his class out for a burn experience each spring around the Ely area.
“We’ve done work out at the International Wolf Center, on the Dorothy Molter Museum property, and at the North American Bear Center,” he said. “Sometimes we burn on private property when the land owner is willing to have us work there. We like to help those organizations that don’t have a workforce to maintain their property.”
He noted that while the VCC fire control students are capable, they are still inexperienced with prescribed burns, so the projects are kept on a small scale.
“We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew,” Miller said.
The ongoing cold weather this spring put a damper on the start of the 2022 prescribed burn season in the Superior National Forest.
Experts with the Superior National Forest were hoping to start with the prescribed burns a month ago, but the ongoing winter and wet conditions have not allowed it.
“They look at wildlife ecosystems where potentially that burn could help create new habitat. There are a lot of wildlife species that benefit from prescribed burns. If we can reduce some of those hazardous fuels now, with our prescriptions by going out and conducting these carefully planned burns, we hope to reduce the chance of intense wildfire in the future,” Superior National Forest Public Affairs Officer Joanna Gilkeson said.
Forest experts planned to do around 6,000 to 7,000 acres of prescribed burns this year. Those on email lists will be notified when burns happen. Those that generate more smoke or take place in a community will be announced on social media.
“Depending on the fuels and weather conditions, the prescribed fire units could be burned starting this week through June or July,” said USFS West Zone Fire Management Officer Nick Petrack.
“Prescribed fires generally begin on the western half of the forest in oak-blueberry units to stimulate blueberry production, then we burn wildlife openings, meadows and piles across the forest, followed by underburning in forest stands to reduce excess fuel build-up,” he said. “The window of opportunity for prescribed burning is very small due to safety factors like weather conditions and air quality.”


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