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Canada Gives Firefighting Protection to Minnesota Lakes
By Leif Enger
April 13, 1999
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The time between snowmelt and spring growth is Minnesota's most dangerous fire season. Every year, thousands of acres burn, and tens of thousands of dollars are spent controlling the flames. But this year, an agreement between three Midwest states and two Canadian provinces could mean better firefighting for all and a strange new sight on Minnesota lakes.

THE NEWEST WEAPON IN MINNESOTA'S FIREFIGHTING ARMORY is 30 years old and Canadian; a boxy red-and-yellow airplane with a boat's upturned prow and two big, loud engines.

Owens: They're old, 1930s technology. Pratt and Whitney, 2,100 horsepower each; they're fairly reliable. They keep clunking along.
Pilot Ron Owens flies the Canadair CL-215, the only plane in the world designed just for firefighting. It isn't big, sleek, or fast, but can skim across a lake and pick up six tons of water in 10 seconds through a pair of vents just inches across.
Owens: As you take on water you add a little more power, you know, just like getting stuck in the mud, a little more power.
... Then lift off and head for the smoke while deep inside the plane, a pump infuses the water with a concentrated detergent
Owens: And when the doors open and it falls out, the air hits it, it aerates, and it looks like shaving cream. We can take that spruce tree out front of your house and it just looks like some kid came and spray-bombed it with shaving cream. We can take your whole house and just turn it into Christmas.
Owens and his Canadian crew of five are in Minnesota as an experiment in economic and international cooperation. An agreement called the Great Lakes Fire Compact is supposed to lube the firefighting bureaucracy between the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan and the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario. This, says DNR fire specialist Paul Peterson, is the agreement's first extended test-run.
Peterson: Work visas, passports, all the things you'd need to go over any international border and work there's ground crew that goes along with it, that knows how to work on it if we have a breakdown. Coming across the border with a plane makes the border patrol a little nervous sometimes, so this has been a long time in the making, this particular kind of agreement.
So why go to all this trouble? Minnesota's used air tankers for years; bigger planes that could dump much bigger loads than this Canadian boat. The reasons, Peterson says, are economy and efficiency. The larger tankers were expensive to fly and could take almost an hour to refill between dumps. He says with so many people moving to the lakes area, an hour's too long to wait.
Peterson: If we get a hundred-acre fire, chances are there's a house or personal property involved. As opposed to, the farther north you get the bigger your fires can get before they threaten personal property. Speed matters.
In the sky above North Long Lake, the Canadair shows just above the trees. It's a demonstration run; there are no fires yet today. In full sun, the plane comes in over the shoreline, dipping so low a whole cabin lies in shadow for a moment. Then the pilot Owens lays its red belly against the bay.

The Canadian air crew will be in Minnesota a month. By early May, DNR officials hope the dry season will be over, and they'll know more about the possibilities of international firefighting.