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Fire danger grew in Duluth-area's storm's wake

Many trees in Duluth's Hartley Park were knocked down by the July 21, 2016 storm. Forum News Service file photo.

DULUTH, Minn. — When winds clocked at 80 and even 100 mph ravaged trees across southern St. Louis County just before dawn one year ago — July 21, 2016 — the big problems for many people were gaping holes in their roof, downed power lines or a crunched car.

But county foresters and local fire officials saw a longer, more insidious problem ahead.

All those downed trees, as they died and dried, become potential fuel for any wildfire that might start — added fuel that could push small fires into major disasters. And not just out in unpopulated wilderness, but right in and around Duluth.

"We're definitely taking it seriously. We knew we had an issue from Day One" after the storm, said Duluth Deputy Fire Chief Sean Krizaj.

The Duluth Fire Department took extra training this spring from Department of Natural Resources forest fire experts, learning the differences between battling structure fires and wildland fires.

The department also added a smaller, off-road fire truck that can navigate deeper into forested areas than their big rigs. They also added more portable, smaller-diameter fire hose that can be pulled into remote areas of places such as Hartley Park and Bagley Nature Area that were hard-hit with downed trees.

And the city updated its contract with the Minnesota DNR firefighting program, which has the ability and authority to fight forest fires even inside the city limits, Krizaj said.

"We can always call for their help, including their helicopters, to get at more-remote areas," Krizaj said.

Fire officials were impressed with how quickly private homeowners sawed and disposed of their downed trees, in many cases taking advantage of free disposal options offered by the city and surrounding communities.

"People got right to it, with the help of a lot of volunteer groups, too," Krizaj noted.

But in undeveloped forested areas inside and outside the city, hundreds of acres of trees remain in various stages of blowdown. Some trees snapped in half under the pressure of the hurricane-force winds. Others uprooted and toppled, although many stopped short of hitting the ground.

In the short run, those tipped trees are delaying the highest fire danger because some of the trees continue to soak up some moisture.

"We walked the worst areas with county and state forestry people and they explained what we were going up against," Krizaj said.

Eventually, all of the toppled trees will die and dry. But because they aren't on the ground, they won't rot quickly. That's what U.S. Forest Service fire experts found out after the July 4, 1999, blowdown across the Superior National Forest. Experts thought the downed trees would rot, and fire danger drop, in about 10 years. But 18 years later many of those trees are still intact and ready to burn.

St. Louis County, which owns and manages thousands of acres of forest in and just outside Duluth as part of its 900,000-acre tax-forfeited forestry system, reported that wind damaged trees on more than 3,000 acres across the southern quarter of the county. (There also was damage in the Ely area from a storm on the same day.) Foresters quickly called in loggers to salvage what wood could be harvested, but at a reduced price for the county.

The county manages many of the hardest-hit areas in the northern areas of Duluth into Rice Lake, including a 170-acre parcel near Hartley Park that is set to be logged. Other county land along Howard Gnesen Road also is slated for cutting to reduce fire danger. Other hard-hit areas included Taft and Bergen Lake, county officials noted.

Including the reduced-cost salvage sales and lost value of timber sales already planned, the county lost about $281,000 because of the storm, said Jason Meyer, deputy director of St. Louis County's Lands and Minerals Department.

The good news is most of the wind-damaged forest has been identified and, where possible, logged to recover some revenue and reduce the fire danger, Meyer said.

"We're still finding some pockets, but it's getting less frequent," Meyer said. "We've sold just about everything (identified as wind-damaged) and most of that has been harvested or is about to be harvested."

The Minnesota DNR reported about 1,600 acres of forest damage from the July 21, 2016 storm, mostly in the Fond du Lac State Forest but also some in the Cloquet Valley State Forest, said Clayton Rakes, timber program forester for the DNR in the Cloquet area.

"We got in there to capture that mortality, get something (timber value) out of there and to encourage regeneration, and reduce that dead fuel," Rakes said.

ONLINE

Got to duluthnewstribune.com for a minute-by-minute chronology of the storm, and a look back at photos and video of the damage.

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