BWCA fire reaching historic proportions

The Pagami Creek fire has charred over 100,000 acres of the BWCA.
The Pagami Creek fire has charred over 100,000 acres of the BWCA.

In one of those odd life coincidences, my family and I were camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area shortly before the thunderstorm came through that started the Pagami Creek fire. About a month later, that fire is at historic levels, with 101,000 acres burned and no immediate end in sight.

Our trip ended uneventfully; in another coincidence, we paddled through the area burned by the Ham Lake Fire of 2007 on our way home. I checked with the Incident Information System upon our return and noted the small fire that had begun near the creek south of the Fernberg Road east of Ely. The Forest Service reported the blaze and decided to let it burn, which is standard procedure. Crews intentionally set fire to about 2,000 acres near the Fernberg to protect property in that direction, but otherwise it seemed like a relatively routine event.

That changed on Sunday when strong winds and dry conditions caused it to explode east-south-east and race 16 miles in less than a day. Now it looks to be one of the top fires in the state’s history in terms of acreage burned.

There hasn’t been much rain since July, and plenty of dried timber is still on the ground from the 1999 blowdown in the path of the fire. Gov. Mark Dayton has called out the National Guard; Manitoba has sent help. Bulldozers are on the south end of the blaze, plowing a fire line, and four Blackhawk helicopters are among the aircraft bombing it with water. Miller Park in Milwaukee closed its roof for the Brewers’ baseball game Tuesday because of the haze, some of which reached Chicago.

According to KARE 11, “the historic Insula cabin, a popular local landmark, was destroyed as fire tore through the forest that surrounds Lake Insula. The cabin was used by conservation workers in the early 1900s, and lovingly restored just last year by the DNR.”

There have been two large BWCA fires since the 1999 blowdown — Cavity Lake in 2006 (32,000 acres) and Ham Lake (76,000 acres) the following year. About half of the Ham Lake fire was on the Canadian side of the border. Remarkably, the loss of life has been relatively small — one death at Cavity Lake and 16 serious injuries between the two of them. Several dozen structures burned in those fires.

The Forest Service is getting very good at evacuating canoeists from fires. I’ve heard from one person who said a Forest Service worker even offered to carry one of his Duluth packs down a portage as they skedaddled out.

A major safety worry is for the firefighters. Valdo Calvert, a retired regional fire chief for the Fish and Wildlife Service, told Minnesota Public Radio what many are thinking: “It’s exposure time for pilots, so every time you’re in the air, something can go wrong.” In all, 230 personnel were on the scene Tuesday, and a reported 500 were working this afternoon.

Minnesotans often think of the Hinckley Fire of 1894 when the subject of forest fires comes up, perhaps because we do a good job of preserving that history in museums and books. And, make no mistake, the Hinckley Fire was a disaster from all perspectives — at least 436 dead, 307,000 acres burned and all or parts of nine communities destroyed.

Other historic fires since statehood include the Cloquet Fire of 1918, which killed at least 453 people and burned 100,000 acres, and the Baudette Fire of 1910, which killed 43 and burned more than 300,000 acres. As long ago as 1735, a French missionary wrote to a relative that he traveled from Lake Superior to Lake of the Woods without “even once catching a glimpse of the sun” because of a fire.

The early 20th century fires convinced state officials to take a more active role in fire and forest management; one result was the creation of what is now the DNR, with its system of regional managers. What will the legacy of the early 21st century fires be?

Freezing overnight temperatures and a little rain helped slow the Pagami Creek fire Tuesday night, and today was cloudy and cool, but there is no rain in the forecast for several days. Officials are saying that the blaze will probably burn until the snow flies.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 09/14/2011 - 08:39 pm.

    I thought I read somewhere that fires are part of the natural cycle in these areas so as long as property and life aren’t endangered, forest fires like this will keep the ecology of the area in balance. On the minus side, I also recall from “An Inconvenient Truth” that forest fires in general contribute a surprisingly large amount of CO2 to the atmosphere and therefore global warming. A lot of this is human caused burns such as in the Amazon where these fires are destroying the tropical rainforest.

  2. Submitted by david granneman on 09/14/2011 - 10:48 pm.

    you can blame the fire in the boundary area on environmentalists. When the storm blew down the trees the loggers in the area begged to go in and remove the dead trees. they warned if the blowdown was left in the forest it would present a great danger of fire. Removing the trees would have provided the loggers income and would have helped the regrowth in the forest. The loggers where stopped from removing the dangerous dead wood by environmentalists. The great fire as predicted by the loggers devastated the forest and greatly influenced the area’s environment. These fires will continue until proper management is allowed to clear the forest of the dead trees. THE DEVISTATION CAN BE BLAMED DIRECTLY ON THE ENVIRONMENTALISTS AND THEIR POLICEYS.

  3. Submitted by Carla Menssen on 09/14/2011 - 11:54 pm.

    This fire is not in the blow-down area of the 1999 storm.

  4. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 09/15/2011 - 10:22 am.

    The natural progress IS for fire to consume it once in a while, especially blowdowns. It not only clears away dead wood, it actually encourages some seeds to germinate, allowing new forest to replace the old.

    I say, let it burn. Keep houses and other buildings as safe as possible and don’t risk too much human life to keep it in check, but let nature do what it’s supposed to.

    This “devastation” is as natural as birth and death.

  5. Submitted by Lora Jones on 09/15/2011 - 10:44 am.

    #2. Do your research. Salvage logging does more harm than good. I shudder to think of what even a “little” soil erosion would do up there. Those trees grow on 2 inches of soil over bedrock in a lot of places. Lunar landscape indeed!

  6. Submitted by Tom Levar on 09/15/2011 - 02:02 pm.

    I was born (1954) and raised in Ely, am a landowner on a lake adjacent to the BW and have recreated in this area all of my life. In addition, I am a natural resources scientist by training and profession. SSW winds 10-15 mph are forecasted within the next 48 hours by Intellicast. Aside from my management and ecological opinions……..What will likely happen with predicted winds given the fuel load from the 1999 Blowdown to the north? What should we have done differently? This area so appreciated and cherished by many will be changed for decades.

  7. Submitted by Brian Nelson on 09/15/2011 - 03:27 pm.

    Most of the wood is not salvageable in the blow-down areas. The straight-line winds resulted in splintered, unusable wood. Visit the area and take a look for yourself.

    The largest forest fires in our country’s history took place as a result of clear-cutting. The Hinckley and Peshtigo fires were the result of easily burnt underbrush and slash remaining. Old growth forests do not burn well; the big trees are the most resistant to fire.

    Think about it: you put a giant log on the fire, you split it into larger pieces.

    There is still plenty of land to log.

  8. Submitted by Douglas Owens-Pike on 09/17/2011 - 07:35 am.

    we only have to recall Yellowstone NP and the devastation caused there by a fire suppression policy. Most images of this Pagami Ck fire reveal a ground layer fire, not a crown fire. Big difference! Occassionally you do see a tree that gets completely burned, but this fire is doing what came naturally to this region. Removing undesirable deadwood, opening the forest to a variety of wildlife in patches, some more open where the fire was hotter; regrowth after this season will be ideal for moose, bear, and deer. It is sad that the term environmentalist is used to lump lots of folks. Some have little knowledge of ecology or forest process. They get in the way of intelligent exotic species removal, like burrows in the Grand Canyon, who were destroying native vegetation. Here is a clear situation where people who understand forest ecology made the right choice. Expense is now required to save property that is outside the designated wilderness, where those home owners actually would benefit from a controlled burn to keep dense vegetation away from their homes, etc.

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