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Spotting Fires 2,500 Feet Above The Ground

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Fighting fires in Minnesota – like the ones burning in the northwestern portion of the state — doesn’t just happen on the ground.

It’s also happening in the air; 2,500 feet above the ground.

“We’re looking for plumes of smoke,” said Department of Natural Resources Observer Kent Larson.

He flew with pilot Cindy Mayne just north of the Twin Cities throughout an eight county area.

He’s used to fighting fires the last 37 years with water and a hose, but times have changed. He’s now doing part of the job with his eyes from the sky.

“We’re eyes for the firemen down below,” he said during his flight on Tuesday afternoon.

He spotted smoke just a few minutes into the flight, after taking off from the Cambridge Airport. He alerted firefighters on the ground to the danger he saw.

Recently, while flying, Larson helped firefighters in Forest Lake. He directed them to a burning area, in an effort to contain the fire as much as possible.

Ask some state experts and they’ll tell you it hasn’t been this dry in 25 years. Usually they’re doing these flyovers statewide in the spring to spot fires. But this year, dry conditions, warm temperatures and strong winds mean planes must go up in the fall, too.

Aerial observation is actually taking the place of those manned observation towers, such as the ones in state parks and forests. These flights allow the observer to see much more.

Mayne and Larson head up around noon, and they stay up until 7 p.m. They do the same route three times.

Fire dispatchers take the emergency calls from observers like Larson. Firefighters and equipment are strategically placed across the counties, so they can move into place right away.

“He lets us know if he sees something, and then we can dispatch crews from one of our three stations,” said Lisa Wagner, DNR Fire Program Forester.

They’ll fly again tomorrow and for the foreseeable future, till Minnesota’s fire danger diminishes.

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