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Lake County prepares for wildfires

An area of the Pagami Creek wildfire shows active burning in this aerial photograph on the afternoon of Tuesday Sept. 13, 2011 in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northeastern Minnesota. Lake County officials and residents are working hard to protect the area against future wildfires. (File photo).1 / 2
The Crooked/Wilson Lakes Firewise Community received national recognition for their program last month. Pictured are Tom and Mary Kingston of Wilson Lake, Bre Schueller of the USFS Tofte District, and Micbael Dyste, Lake County Firewise Coordinator. (Submitted)2 / 2

Mary Kingston remembers the Pagami Wildfire like it was yesterday, though it occurred almost two years ago. The 92,000-acre wildfire came within two miles of her home on Wilson Lake, which is about 30 miles northeast of Finland. She and her neighbors were evacuated.

The fire, which affected mostly the Superior National Forest and Boundary Waters, was one of the worst in recent memory. The wilderness areas are still recovering but no homes or businesses were damaged. Still, Kingston said Pagami made her and her neighbors think seriously about wildfire control.

"Pagami kind of changed my life...we realized we'd better do everything we can do to be defensible," she said.

Enter Firewise, a program of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. It's an initiative that aims to make homes more resistant to wildfires. Homeowners can request a Firewise inspection from an emergency management official, who will advise them as to how to reduce the risk of a fire affecting their property.

These tips could include storing firewood as far as possible from any structures or enclosing the bottom of a deck to keep dry leaves and brush from piling up underneath it.

"Protecting structures from wildfire is more effective than fighting wildfires," said BJ Kohlstedt, director of emergency management for Lake County.

Kingston and her neighbors did one better than individual Firewise assessments. They decided to make a Firewise plan for their entire community, including Crooked Lake and Nine Mile Lake, just southeast of Wilson Lake.

"They worked really hard to work together and communicate with each other," Kohlstedt said.

They designated a communication center and a phone tree. They also fortified their homes individually, set annual goals and held a Firewise day. Additionally, each member volunteered his or her time to mitigation projects. The result: last fall, they applied for and received national recognition as a Firewise community.

"We were really excited. Everybody was involved in helping gather this information. We all kind of worked together," Kingston said.

The Wilson/Crooked Lakes community is the first in the area, but Kingston said she would encourage any community to go through the process to protect themselves from wildfires. With the help of Kohlstedt, Lake County Firewise Coordinator Michael Dyste and U.S. Forest Service Officer Bree Schueller, Kingston said it was a straightforward process.

"I'd do it again in a minute," she said. "(There are) easy things we can do to keep our houses safe from wildfires. We can give ourselves the best chance."

Firewise isn't the only program Kohlstedt has pursued to mitigate wildfires. The county has applied for and received many grants to help protect homeowners.

The county recently put out bids to use a grant to pay for brush removal around high-risk homes. The County has applied for a Federal Emergency Management Agency that will pay 70 percent of the cost for homeowners in the northern parts of the county to install metal roofs. Earlier grant programs paid for sprinkler installations and dry hydrants -- pipes placed in a body of water that can be hooked up to a fire truck.

"Because wildfires are a great risk for our county, we tend to put a lot of time and money into it," Kohlstedt said.

While the risk of fires will always be present in a heavily wooded area like Lake County, Kohlstedt said she and other county officials are working hard to keep residents safe.

Kingston, for one, said she's thankful for the knowledgeable officials and available help.

"I'm just really happy it's out there. (They all are) very good resources are very easy to work with," Kingston said.

Learn more about the Firewise program at


Update, 6/17, 10:30 a.m.: An earlier version of this article stated that Lake County has been awarded a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help homeowners pay for metal roofing. The grant has not yet been awarded but the County has applied for it.

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
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