The Day I Helped Save a Tree

The Day I Helped Save a Tree

Well, maybe more than one tree. And probably helped prevent future wildfire and helped prepare a chunk of forest for new growth of trees that could be around for a century or more.

For you see I was fortunate to play a small role in a US Forest Service prescribed burn between Babbitt and Ely on Birch Lake several weeks ago. Mike Wilson and I brought the Lake Vermilion Fire Brigade 1 fireboat over to Birch Lake to participate in the Kangas prescribed burn. Our fireboat usually floats in western Lake Vermilion standing by to save lives and property in fires and accidents that occur on the lake. But this valuable resource is also called on to assist federal and state agencies in planned fire situations as well as emergency breakouts in the northeastern Minnesota area.

Our service started on Monday, as Mike and I prepared the boat, trailer and tow vehicle for the overland trip to Babbitt. This involved maintenance on all three and putting the 6 ton boat on the trailer so we would be ready to go the next morning. It even involved Mike driving to Birch Lake to scout the location of the burn and to find the best boat launch site.

On Tuesday we headed out from the Fire Hall for our trip to Babbitt. We launched the boat into a northerly wind and headed to the muster point at the Birch Lake Campground. We arrived in time to catch the tail end of the morning briefing. We met up with Carl Skustad who was our liaison with the USFS and would direct our activities. Our duties that day were to familiarize ourselves with several miles of shoreline that included the campgrounds, wild shore line and half a dozen or so private structures that might need protecting in the worse-case scenario. We also got familiar with the many people involved in this exercise and how a prescribed burn works. The crews on the ground spent the day preparing the site for the big burn by “blackening the line” on the boundaries of the larger burn areas.

LVFB Chief Don Potter had arranged for us to dock the boat and refuel at the Timber Bay Lodge and Houseboats harbor.  So that’s where we headed once the evening after-action review was complete. We found a safe harbor for the boat and very helpful people that drove us to our vehicle parked at the nearby public landing so we could head home to Cook for the night.

Wednesday morning found us back on the boat after refueling and heading back to the muster point. The weather was more favorable for the burn and things were getting more exciting. The burn started for us when crews on the ground started small fires near the shore that steadily grew in intensity. Our job this day was to protect the personnel and valuable trees on the shoreline and to patrol the opposite shore looking for signs of firebrands carried by the wind that could start fires where they don’t belong.

And this is when I helped save some trees. There were several large pines and cedars near the lakeshore that were surrounded by ground fire. We used the V8 powered pump and water monitor to douse the trees with 1,500 gallons per minute of water to prevent them from getting scorched. Running the monitor is at least a two-person job, for as Isaac Newton once said, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. The action of spraying the water is powerful enough to push the boat away from the fire, so the boat operator needs to be constantly maneuvering to keep the boat close to the fire so the monitor operator can hit it.

As the fire inched its way back inland against the wind, the action moved inland as well. Once our perimeter was safely burning, a helicopter was called in to drop incendiary pellets to start the main burn and walk it back to the far boundary. We then started patrolling the far shore and were happy to report that there was no carry over. We used our FLIR (Forward Looking InfraRed) system to look for hot spots and to navigate though the smoke on the water. This is impressive technology.

At the end of the day, the team’s efforts were considered to be a success at the after-action briefing. We were released from our duties and free to take our boat and go home. We loaded Brigade 1 on the trailer and made the drive back to the LVFB Fire Hall, were the boat waits for the next emergency call.

I was privileged to participate in this experience. It was impressive to see the professionalism that all the Forest Service personnel and others exhibited and gave me a new appreciation for all the people that fight fire and provide emergency service.

If you are interested in learning more about supporting or volunteering for the Lake Vermilion Fire Brigade, please check our website,

Bill Conger

Lake Vermilion Fire Brigade Boat Operator

Cook, Minnesota