Skies turned dark and the wind started blowing. The trees all shook in the wind. The wind became more violent and then it happened… Sounds like a horror movie? Well, for the residents of Itasca County, Minnesota, it was… for just a little while.
In July 2012, Itasca County suffered a devastating wind storm that uprooted thousands of trees. Did the residents in the county panic? No. Itasca County has had a chipping program in place for the last 3 years with the help of the Minnesota Firewise program.
This state grant program has teamed up the University of Minnesota Itasca County Extension office, Itasca County Land Development, Minnesota Power and the communities within the county. The program is a perfect match for the Firewise Communities/USA Recognition program. Although Minnesota had only one recognized Firewise Communities/USA site at the time of the storm, Itasca County residents have been working to remove woody debris from around their homes for years. In effect, they had modified their home ignitions zones and increased their wildfire safety.
According to Bill Brink, Itasca County Firewise Coordinator, in 2012 the number of residents participating in the program more than tripled from 80-100 homeowners to 313. The state grant required that for every dollar given, an in-kind match from volunteer work had to be received. Following the July storms, these homeowners invested over 24,000 volunteer hours resulting in an in-kind match of $526,730 and removing almost 3,000 tons of woody debris.
So what did they do with all of the debris? Remember I mentioned the partnership with Minnesota Power? The Chipper Days program recovers the woody debris from participating homeowners and takes it to collection sites around the county. Prior to the storms, there were only 3 of these collection sites. Since the county Firewise Board was working with communities to obtain their Firewise Communities/USA recognition, new partnerships had been
formed. After the July storms, they were able to obtain 3 additional collection sites for debris. The program provides for an industrial sized chipper to be brought in and chip the woody debris. After the debris is chipped, it is then transported to Minnesota Power to be used as a renewable biofuel. The woody chips are burned with coal to produce electricity: a perfect solution to a bad situation. The removal of almost 3,000 tons of debris not only cleaned up the remains of the storm but made the community safer against wildland fires and provided a valuable, free resource to produce electricity.
So all of this work and Minnesota had only one recognized Firewise community? Not anymore! In 2012, Minnesota brought in 13 new Firewise Communities/USA sites! For years, the work was being done in Minnesota without being recognized. Several communities thought that the process was a long, difficult one to gain recognition. Once these communities were guided through the paperwork and application and were shown the benefits of being recognized, they took off on their own.
Itasca County is a prime example of the benefits of becoming Firewise. When the wind storm hit and wreaked havoc in the community, they were able to handle it in a safe and expedient manner. Look for big things to come out of Minnesota Firewise! I think they have just begun.
Photos: Top: Blowdown area from 2011 in Pine County; Center: Bill Brink and Todd Chlanda in front of collection site; Bottom: chipped material to be used for biofuel.