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Forests and Carbon: Wildfire Management with Tom Remus

a wildfire moves through a conifer forest.

Heidi Holtan:

And in this next segment, we take an in-depth look at some natural resource-based issues important to our region. We discuss problems and also highlight creative solutions. Our current topic is Forests, Carbon, and Climate Change. It's an issue that is receiving a lot of attention in recent years. In our previous segments, we've discussed topics like how carbon is sequestered and stored in forests, how forests and bogs may be impacted by climate change, carbon stored in forest products, biofuels from the forest, and initiatives to enhance local forests to address climate change. You can listen to these conversations at kaxe.org. Today, we are excited to introduce you to Tom Remus. He's from the Bureau of Indian Affairs Midwest Region Fire Management Office, and he's also joined by Mark Jacobs, retired land commissioner from Aitkin county, a producer for these segments. Mark, Tom, thank you for being here today.

Tom Remus:

Hey, good morning.

Mark Jacobs:

Happy to be here.

Heidi Holtan:

Good morning. So Tom, tell us about your role with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Minnesota Incident Command System, the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center.

Tom Remus:

So, I work at the Interagency Fire Center. My position covers the Great Lakes Region plus Iowa and Indiana, but there's not much for Native American land in Indiana, just a little bit and one small reservation in Iowa. My current position is I oversee the fire management program. So I'm working on budget policy, resource prioritization, movement of resources, wildfire response, and fuel treatments.

Tom Remus:

And the Minnesota Incident Command System (MNICS) organization has been around since the late seventies. I can't give you the exact date. I think it was 78, but there were some specific gentlemen who were very forward-thinking in the late seventies after the real bad fire season of 1976. Essentially, they were trying to react to seeing trucks of one color driving by a fire [unintelligible]. What the MNICS organization is, it's interagency cooperation, coordination, and closest resource response. So we share stuff. We share all our toys. We work together, and we send the closest and the quickest response to the fire.

Heidi Holtan:

John, you had a question about a phrase he used?

John Latimer:

Yeah. You were talking about the fuels I think. And I was curious, <laugh> with the history of fire, going back to the indigenous, the American Indians who lived here, it has changed the forest considerably because we have stopped fires from really proceeding and burning. Does that cause an accumulation of fuels that is gonna cause maybe some of the types of fires that we see out west?

Tom Remus:

Yes: I mean the short answer is [yes]. I think if you look at some of the responses from the Greenwood fire last year during our drought up in the Ely area, a lot of that land where it got started and it got established was private land that had not been managed in any regard and had not been burned. There hadn't been any light fires through there for many years, and there hadn't been any active forest management because it was privately owned by an individual or a family that didn't wish for that to happen. And I think that active management of forests is an important option for us to use. And we do a lot of prescribed burning. The BIA does a lot of prescribed burning and other agencies too; it's very important. And we also do mechanical treatments too, where we can broaden that window of opportunity, because burning can be difficult for us because we have limited resources and can compete in that same time window.

Heidi Holtan:

Tom, can you talk about the risk level of our local forests and what areas you think are the highest risk for wildfire?

Tom Remus:

In my opinion, and I would say in a lot of other people's opinion, it largely goes by geologic history. So, the better-drained soil types, the forest cover types that occur in those areas, generally are more flammable, so that you're gonna see more dangerous and destructive fires. Where you have drier land (like on a glacial moraine, that's covered with red pine and so on) the fire's gonna move faster and burn a lot hotter. That being said, grasslands are quick, fast-moving fires that are also readily available. Sometimes you can get a little shot of rain in the morning, and later that day things can be burning.

John Latimer:

So, I live on a Norway pine plantation, and I'm concerned that if a fire came through there, it would sweep through pretty fast. The undergrowth is hazel (and some other small shrubs here and there, but mostly hazel). What would be the best thing for me to do to mitigate fire in my area?

Tom Remus:

The hazel understory kind of produces a little microclimate, and it can hold the humidity closer to the ground. So, fires are carried by fine fuels, right, John? So, it's either the grass or the needles that are gonna carry the fire. And until it gets up in the crown and moves quickly, once it's in the crown, it's very difficult to knock down and usually requires aircraft. For you, there's there're two things that I would do. One, I would try and open up that crown closure, you know, break up the canopy a little bit. Try and eliminate some of the ladder fuels, as we call 'em.

Tom Remus:

So, the lower branches on the trees where the fire can climb up. And so you get the pre-heating off the ground, and it kind of explodes up. And then the number one thing that you can do, which is very simple, is to eliminate all vegetation from touching your home. Nothing burnable against the bottom of your house. And people have a hard time with that. I'm looking out the window at a whole bunch of hostas and other flowers that are up against our porch. You know, either keep 'em green or take 'em out. I mean that's the bottom line because a lot of times people leave and that fire might creep across a brown yard and then ignite the siding and go up the side of the house.
I mean, we all saw it last year. There are yards in Grand Rapids that have not even come back from that drought from last year that are still kind of brown, even with a ton of rain.

John Latimer:

So, getting the vegetation away from the house, and I have all my buildings have metal roofs. And that's just a matter of choice, low maintenance, plus it gives me protection from flying embers. So, the house I don't expect will burn from the top down, but I hadn't thought about even the little plants around the house that could bring the fire in and get the siding burning. That's something to consider. I had not thought about that.

Tom Remus:

I agree with you, John. I put my last asphalt shingle up. I'm done with them. <laugh> Steel roof is the way to go!

Heidi Holtan:

And definitely be trimming branches anywhere near your houses, too, right?

Tom Remus:

Yeah. I mean, if you can get 30 feet of green space in between the house and where the timber is, that's certainly gonna help. As long as you don't, you know, I'm not standing in your yard to see what the needle cast is across your yard, but we have a big white pine in our yard that drops a lot of needles. But there's some green space in between, and that tree is protected by me.

John Latimer:

We've heard people like Lee Frelich at the University of Minnesota talking about climate change and how the forest is sort of moving north. Is there going to be a change in the types of forests that we have in this area, and how will that change affect fires?

Tom Remus:

Well, I had some notes here about what Lee says, and I generally agree with him. He's a very intelligent man. He's done a ton of research and followed up on Heinselman's research. What Lee says is the change is probably gonna be more red maple and fewer conifer species, especially less pine. Maybe the Jack pine, which is our most volatile species, is probably gonna move north in theory. What's going to happen in the Prairie Parkland areas, the prairie areas, and the Prairie Parklands, what's gonna happen in those areas? I don't know. It's gonna be difficult to tell. I mean, in theory, warmer air holds more water, right? But we see these super events of rain. I've been seeing them for the last 20 years.

Tom Remus:

We all have, whether you're cognizant of it or not. You're seeing these super events of rain, like what just happened down in Mississippi, where you have these like wicked rains all at once. Pakistan is another good example, where they went right from the winter into a terrible drought and temperatures in the lower fifties in the Celsius range. So, I think 127 degrees, right? Yeah. Now they're underwater. And, you know, we've seen that on a smaller scale. 2012, we had the wettest June on record in Duluth, and then it finished with a drought. So, it's difficult to predict how it's all gonna come together with all the different forces and all the variables that we are dealing with. I would say, we're gonna see change, right?

John Latimer:

If we move to more of a red maple forest, I know that pines, (white pines and Norway pines, especially the mature ones) were sort of insulated against damage by their bark. I mean, a fast-moving grass fire could sweep through and really do nothing to those trees. What would be the effect on red maple? That bark doesn't look particularly well suited to insulation. If you've got a grass fire sweeping through a forest of red maple (let's say it happened in the fall or spring before there were leafed out,) would it kill those trees? Would they die as a result of the fire or is there some survival there? How does that work?

Tom Remus:

Young red maples do not like fire and will not do well when exposed (if they get exposed). That being said, it can kind of turn into an asbestos forest, especially if you have earthworms eating all of the duff. I've seen it in spots where you just have maple and some scattered popple, and then it's essentially soil. Yeah. That's not very conducive to the fire spreading either. But what's gonna happen in the Boundary Waters? Frelich thinks it's gonna really trend towards more red maple. He thinks that the thunderstorms are gonna be juicier and wetter, and you're gonna get less ignitability from the lightning. The fuels won't be as receptive to the lightning. But, last year when we had that very intense drought, we had days where a majority of our fires were lightning-caused fires and in very remote locations. And often in black spruce swaps, which was also very surprising. Where we couldn't get to them with engines and vehicles. And essentially, we would have to be reliant on aircraft to try and knock them down and then put a 'dozer into 'em. From a climate change standpoint, you generally have peat involved in burning black spruce swamps. It's very difficult to deal with.

Mark Jacobs:

Tom, working in forestry, foresters did forestry stuff, and fire people did fire prevention. Is there any more coordination now as far as using forest management to reduce fire risk?

Tom Remus:

In our bureau, there is. I think there's been some turning towards separation a little bit, but fire management was born from forest management. And as far as I'm concerned, and most of the guys that I work with, we would like to keep it that way. It's like anything in the modern world; the specialization tends to cause separation. But, the best thing that forest managers can do is to stay engaged and to reach out and take part in fire management because they're very closely tied historically and practically.

John Latimer:

We talked a little bit about what people can do to sort of reduce their risks around their homes. Is there something on the horizon, or is there a reason for you to have some sort of hope for the future?

Tom Remus:

I thought long and hard about this question, and at times, I wasn't very hopeful. But, I know we rely on technology a lot to take care of all of our problems. But you know, there are some things on the horizon that I'm very hopeful about. One is, is the use of unmanned aircraft drones. They are becoming something that can be so much safer and easier and more efficient to use. And, we're getting involvement from NASA, who wants to help now. And the infrastructure bill has pumped a lot of money in for the short term and hopefully some of the things that we've seen over the last few years (some of the devastation and things like the Greenwood fire,) we can continue to improve. And, look at it holistically, we really need to.

Heidi Holtan:

It's Tom Remus from Bureau of Indian Affairs, Midwest Region Fire Management Office, and Mark Jacobs, our producer for the segments on Forest and Carbon. You can catch up on all of our conversations at kaxe.org. Tom, Mark, thanks for your time today.

John Latimer:

Yeah. Thank you, gentlemen. Nice to chat with you.

Mark Jacobs:

Thank you.

Tom Remus:

Have a good week.

Heidi Holtan has worked at KAXE/KBXE for over 20 years. She currently helms the Morning Show as News and Public Affairs Director. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North. In 2018 Heidi received the “Building Bridges in Media” award from the Islamic Resource Group for her work on KAXE/KBXE hosting conversations about anti-Muslim movements in rural Minnesota.
As a mail carrier in rural Grand Rapids, Minn., for 35 years, John Latimer put his own stamp on a career that delivered more than letters. Indeed, while driving the hundred-mile round-trip daily route, he passed the time by observing and recording seasonal changes in nature, learning everything he could about the area’s weather, plants and animals, and becoming the go-to guy who could answer customers’ questions about what they were seeing in the environment.
Sarah Mitchell (she/they) joined the KAXE team in February of 2022. Sarah creates the Season Watch Newsletter, writes segment summaries for the website, and coordinates our Engaging Minnesotans with Phenology project. With a background in wildlife biology, Sarah enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, aquatic invertebrates, or the short-tailed shrew (did you know they can echolocate?).