Wildfire on Ice

Hot Competition in the Heart of Winter 

WRITTEN and PHOTOGRAPHED BY AMANDA WILLIAMS

WHEN YOU SPEND YOUR LIFE HIKING AROUND STEEP HILLSIDES, digging in the dirt, and sleeping on the ground surrounded by other like-minded creatures, it may be hard to convey to folks with more mainstream jobs why we love this way of life. 

Wildland fire is a true brotherhood, a family of sorts. We work hard in the summer, and in northern Minnesota, we play hard in the winter. We care about those in our industry as friends and family—putting the fun in fundraising is a great way for fire folks to get together, play some hockey, and support the network of wildland firefighters all over the country. 

Wildfire on Ice raises funds for a good cause, plus gives firefighting families and their supporters the opportunity to skate with Smokey Bear, play chuck-a-puck, and spend time together on the ice.

Each winter since 2012, firefighters and their families have been descending on hockey arenas around the region—most recently in Walker—to skate for a good cause during Wildfire on Ice. 

Wildfire on Ice has been a tradition since 2012. As the story goes, told by Vance Hazelton, one of the original fire folks who brought the event into fruition, tells it like this: 

“During the summer of 2011, we had a number of interagency fire resources staffing on the Superior National Forest. One evening, at the Seagull Guard Station (a remote fire barracks and outpost, all the way at the end of the Gunflint Trail, north of Grand Marais), after a long day’s work, there were a couple Forest Service guys talking about the upcoming winter hockey season. The visiting U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service guys helping on the forest brought up that they, too, play a little hockey. After a bit of back and forth about who knew more about hockey, the plan of playing a game was put into motion.” In the fire world, it’s common to make everything more interesting with a little friendly competition—running, digging line, even being first out of the truck to wash the windows. So, naturally, the stage was set for some sporting fun! 

“Within a few months the game USFS (Superior and Chippewa National Forests) vs. USFWS (cooperative team of folks from numerous refuges in Minnesota) was planned. The inaugural game would be played at the old Hodgin-Berardo Arena (better known fondly as the “Snake Pit”) in Coleraine, Minnesota, that winter. And, the Wildfire on Ice hockey fundraiser was born.”

In case, like Paul Harvey, you want to know “the rest of the story,” the Forest Service prevailed at that first game, despite a respectable showing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Over the early years, interest from other agencies grew and four teams were rostered with players from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Forest Service, and the National Park Service. 

Last year’s participants pose for a group photograph at the annual Wildfire on Ice competition.

Hockey is right at home in Lake Country, with most of us growing up shoveling off a pond and skating with the whole neighborhood after school in the winter. So, in the heart of Minnesota, a natural fit for the tournament for the past five years, has been the Walker Area Community Center. Last year, those involved raised over $31,000 for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation. 

Wildfire on Ice is slated for January 17-18 and is open and free to the public to come out and watch some good old Minnesota hockey, while also supporting a great cause. Families love to gather for the weekend and have the chance to skate with Smokey Bear and chuck-a-puck, and have open ice time for hockey and skating. Awards are given for MVP of the tournament and AARP as well—these guys know how to have a good time. If there is one guarantee, it’s that the weekend is full of laughs. For more information about the event and schedule, visit wildfireonice.com.

We can all say we’re hockey fans—it’s a given rite being Minnesotan. But it’s a big undertaking, organizing an event like this each year, so why do it? The truth is, everyone in the fire community looks forward to this weekend of skating hard, being generous, and simply gathering with friends. 

In the summer during a busy fire year, many partners and family members go without seeing much of mom, dad, uncles, and friends, who are gone for weeks at a time assisting other places with their fires. They may come home for a few days and then get called right back out to another incident. While watching their kids skate with Smokey at Wildfire and Ice, many spouses of firefighters find this time to commiserate the woes of keeping the home fires burning while their partners are gone. The brotherhood—and I mean that inclusively, all genders and people in fire are part of the family—it extends to their friends and families as well. Ask anyone, it’s a small community even nationally, and it’s not uncommon to see the same people year after year at different fires in various states. You become friends. So, in the winter, it’s fantastic to see familiar faces and recount the season’s adventures and successes. Fundraising for a good cause is simply a perk of some good people getting together to have a good time. 

One seasoned Minnesota firefighter, Ernie Schmitt, says he comes out for the event because “once you’ve been around for quite a while, you see people who have been injured or negatively impacted while working on fires.” After seeing coworkers who did not receive the best support or care, prior to becoming aware of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, he was saddened by the lack of support available. “After finding out about the good the foundation does for firefighters, the next time I was exposed to a firefighter with a serious situation, I contacted the WFF on their behalf. I was amazed at the compassion and desire to help others that they conveyed to me. The WFOI event is my way of helping the WFF. The fun and camaraderie of the event make contributing even more fulfilling.” 

Stories like Ernie’s are common. In fact, the motto of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation is “Where Compassion Spreads like Wildfire.” Once, in a briefing it was expressed that “solid” is a word heard a lot in the fire world. Our leaders are solid. The plan is solid. Well, that’s only too true regarding this event and organization as well. The folks out there are solid. Solid people and solid friends, doing a good thing while having a good time in the off-season, until they meet again at the next “big one.” 

The Wildland Firefighter Foundation 

Vicki Minor, Executive Director and Founder of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, wanted a place to donate to those families affected by tragedy during the raging wildfires that occur most years in the U.S. summer season. In 1994, after the loss of 14 courageous firefighters at Storm King Mountain at South Canyon, and a poor experience she had trying to donate money to the cause, she developed her own place to provide support and resources. Firefighting groups and agencies across the nation have seen such a great impact from this organization supporting the injured and families of the fallen. They have banded together, as we have in Minnesota, to establish fundraisers from hunting, sports, food and beverage, and a number of other events to promote camaraderie, while also supporting an organization which supports their extended fire family in times of need. To read more about the foundation and its events, visit wffoundation.org. 

Did you know Smokey Bear Lives in Minnesota? 

You may have recently watched cinematic endeavors involving wildfire–Disney’s Planes: Fire and Rescue or Only the Brave. Perhaps you remember the movie, Always, from years gone by. Most fire stories originate in the Western states, but Minnesota has roots in fire, too. Smokey Bear—the longest running Public Service Announcement Campaign in the country—has its home in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. The National Symbols cache is housed there and is where all the Smokey swag is ordered, packaged, and shipped out for parades and fire prevention events across the nation.