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How prepared is Minnesota for other wildfires on the scale of Greenwood — or larger?

The ability to contain wildfires has more to do with favorable weather conditions than resources, according to Lee Frelich, director of the U of M’s Center for Forest Ecology.

A smoky, foggy sunrise along the Gunflint Trail on August 24.
A smoky, foggy sunrise along the Gunflint Trail on August 24.
Photo by Sarah Shapiro/USDA Forest Service

Since igniting over a week ago, the Greenwood fire has burned through more than 21,000 acres at a pace that one firefighter described as “freight train.” The fire is one of several burning in the Superior National Forest, and the largest of 10 wildfires in the state.  

Currently, a coalition of 429 firefighters, managed by the Eastern Area Incident Management team, is fighting to contain the fire along the south side of Hwy. 1. As of yesterday it is zero percent contained. Last night, forest officials confirmed that the fire had destroyed a number of buildings near the McDougal Lake area, including 12 homes, 57 outbuildings, and had left 3 primary structures with some damage. 

The fire has brought to light some questions about land management and stoked fears that current drought conditions could bring about larger wildfires in September.

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So how prepared is Minnesota for wildfires on the scale of Greenwood or larger?

Weather is key to containment

The ability to contain wildfires has more to do with favorable weather conditions than resources, according to Lee Frelich, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Forest Ecology.

Lee Frelich
Lee Frelich
“When you get a day with a high wind in a severe drought in a northern conifer forest, you are not going to stop the progress of a major wildfire like Greenwood,” Frelich said. “Even if you see the fire within a few hours of ignition and try to fight it right away, with that vegetation type, once it gets going, it’s going to grow in size and there’s basically nothing that firefighters can do other than get people out of the way,”

While officials have said they believe they can contain the fire by Sept. 1, if the weather delivers on rain and cooler conditions, Frelich says a fire the size of Greenwood will keep burning until either running into a lake or being submerged by rain. “In this vegetation type, no matter how many people you put on it, you just can’t put it out,” he said.

Coniferous forests are particularly flammable during a drought and large amounts of evaporation leaves the soil near trees particularly vulnerable. And as summers get warmer, Frelich warns that fires like Greenwood may become more common. 

“The trees are transpiring water out of the soil over a longer period. And you should never underestimate the huge, absolutely huge impact of that.

In fact, Clark McCreedy, a public information officer with the East Area Incident Management Team, says that while the fire was ignited by lightning, it did not set off until hitting the forest floor. 

“What typically happens is lightning will hit a tree, travel down the tree, and hit the forest floor. And what really ignites is the forest floor,” McCreedy said. “And so that fire will smolder and sit there in the dust on the forest floor or even as much as days until we get a weather event that dries things out, where the wind picks up, the temperature increases, the humidity drops, and then that fire will start to grow, become active.” 

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Agencies collaborating

The Greenwood fire is being managed under unified command by the Superior National Forest, Lake County Emergency Management and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Paul Lundgren, the Wildfire Section manager at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), says that most wildfires in Minnesota are managed by an interagency team. 

“It’s not about any one agency going by themselves to manage a wildfire. We do it together because it lends itself to putting the right people in the right place at the right time and doing it together so you don’t have to have quite as many resources,” Lundgren said.

Lundgren said if a wildfire occurs outside federal lands, Minnesota DNR would manage the response but cooperatively with the same agencies that are in control of the situation now, including the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior, who collectively manage wildfires as an interagency organization called MNICS, or the Minnesota Incident Command System.

“That’s just how they have done things for a number of years — sharing resources, across state lines and across agency lines. And we’ll continue to do that going forward,” Lundgren said.

Successful evacuation of people

McCreedy, who has been communicating updates about the fire with media personnel and the public for the East Area Management team, said the agency factors current and forecasted weather conditions when preparing for wildfires and evacuation efforts. 

So far hundreds have safely been evacuated in what McCreedy calls a success.

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“It’s a wonderful success story in terms of pre-planning and cooperation with the Lake County Sheriff’s Department and Lake County emergency management,” McCreedy said. “We’ve been able to keep people out of harm’s way and to do so really effectively.”

McCreedy said when high winds from the west nearly doubled the fire in size, the crew moved quickly to stay ahead of containment lines. “We had crews working the Hwy. 1 corridor,” he said. “We had crews in the little lake area. We had crews to the south. And in all cases, we had crews essentially in front of where this fire was moving because we’ve got an excellent system of communication. We were able to communicate once this fire hit a certain point that triggered the response.”  

Looking forward

While the Greenwood fire is the largest wildfire the state has seen in recent years, it is far from the largest in the state’s history.  

In 2007, the Ham Lake fire, ignited by an unattended campfire, burned through approximately 70,000 acres. And in 2011, the state’s largest wildfire in over a century, the Pagami Creek Fire  burned more than 92,000 acres and cost state and federal agencies $21.6 million.

Frelich says it isn’t impossible to imagine wildfires this large or larger in the future. 

“We could easily in the future, with severe droughts, especially combined with warmer summer temperatures from a warming climate, have a fire the size of some of those in Canada now,” Frelich said of fires in Manitoba and Ontario, the latter which grew to cover 600,000 acres. “We know they happened historically. And with an extreme drought and a warmer than average summer, there’s no reason to believe that we couldn’t have fires of that size in the future.”

Peter Reich
Peter Reich
Peter Reich, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Forest Resources, hopes the state takes climate action as a method to prepare for wildfires in the future.

“The best way to prepare for future wildfires is to become the nation’s most advanced state in terms of cutting carbon emissions,” said Reich. “As we see in Minnesota and out in western U.S. and Canada, when the weather becomes extreme, there is very little we can do to stop wildfires.”

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Reich said that while the state could allocate more resources to forest management and wildfire preparedness, every action taken is one “in that direction we need to make 20 to mitigate climate change.”

Cutting carbon emissions will cost money today, Reich said, but will “save money in the long run, so they are also economically prudent. Spending money fighting fires we could avoid is neither environmentally nor economically strategic.”