As Minnesotans toiled in dramatically smoky, dangerous air Thursday, Gov. Tim Walz prepared to discuss the nation's growing wildfire crisis with President Joe Biden and several other governors.
The virtual meeting Friday comes as the state faces a worsening drought and one of the worst air quality crises it has ever recorded. On Thursday, much of the state, including the metro area, was enveloped in air so smoky that it blocked out the sun. An air quality alert was in effect for most of state until 3 p.m. Friday, and wildfire smoke is likely to cause problems beyond that, experts warn.
Biden and the governors, along with Vice President Kamala Harris, will discuss efforts to strengthen wildfire prevention and responses and hear firsthand about the burgeoning wildfire crisis, White House officials said.
Besides Walz, a Democrat, the bipartisan collective will include the Republican governors of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana and the Democratic governors of California, Oregon and Washington.
On Thursday, as Canadian wildfires threatened to keep sending not just smoke but flames across the Minnesota border, officials said a contingent of Connecticut firefighters will join the front line.
The 13-person crew will "assist with initial attack, relief of other crews and pre-positioning to get ahead of potential fires in Minnesota," according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. "Ongoing wildfires in Canada are now within one mile of the Minnesota border."
Three wildfires in Quetico Provincial Park could spread into Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near Crooked and Iron lakes, according to U.S. Forest Service officials at the Superior National Forest. The officials said the agency "continues to monitor and assess these fires daily."
Primed for fire season
"Minnesota's forests and grasslands continue to be plagued by drought and are thus primed for an abnormally robust and problematic fire season," according to a fire update from the agency Thursday.
Fire crews conducted an aerial burnout this week on a 220-acre fire near Ely, the largest in the state, to lead the blaze to natural barriers after Sunday's gusty winds and high temperatures caused it to grow.
"This plan to remove fuel and create a holding line was executed successfully," the Forest Service said. "Crews on the ground will be strengthening this firebreak by removing vegetation and putting down hose lines. Monitoring this fire by air will continue."
'Pins and needles'
Walz said Thursday that he was grateful for the focused attention offered by Friday's meeting. "We're living on pins and needles with the Boundary Waters," he said.
People in rural Minnesota, he said, understand "that this climate thing is real."
"I really do think if anything else with these wildfires and the drought, it's putting this just insane debate whether climate [change] is real or not, it doesn't even matter to these people, the climate change debate," Walz said. "It's happening, they see it; what are we going to do about it? So that's what I'm going to convey."