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Inside the BWCA Fire: A First-Person Account

While the fire continues to burn hundreds of acres of forrest, a Patch editor shares his close encounter with the blaze.

Our campsite was gone.

Within five days of the start of one of the most devastating fires in the history of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA), word reached us as we paddled some 30 miles away: Our campsite from less than a week before—the place we had slept, laughed, shivered, shared meals and traded stories for almost a week—had been ravaged by the same flames that have since scorched more than 146 square miles of protected wilderness.

We had heard the warnings: For 17 days the fire had been growing slowly underground—fires can do that?—sparked by a random lightning strike on Aug. 18.

At first, truth be told, none of us worried. We had heard the warnings without heeding them. But each day our clifftop campsite provided a clearer perspective of the smoke that grew closer and more frequent.  

Now, even as rain has pummeled the Twin Cities and BWCA, National Guard soldiers from across Minnesota and specially trained firefighters from around the country continue to battle the blaze.

As I write this, it has been eight days since I returned from the BWCA.

Their work is just beginning.


The Local Response

As the fire rages on, more than two dozen members of Minnesota National Guard have been called to help the fight. In many cases, the Guard soldiers are pilots flying giant tanks of water and fire retardant over the spreading flames.

According to the Pagami Creek Incident Information System (IIS), five Type 1 “hotshot” crews, eight Type 2 crews, seven helicopters—including four National Guard Black Hawks—eight fixed-wing aircraft, three float planes, two air tankers and three air-attack planes are assisting the efforts from the air.

The Guard is assisting the nearly 600 specially trained National Forest Service personnel on the ground who have also helped contain the fire and prevented an international incident (the BWCA is jointly managed by the US and Canada).

Otherwise, despite the historic scale of the Pagami Creek Fire, fire officials say that Twin Cities firefighters will stay put unless the fire turns catastrophic.

Minneapolis Fire Department Assistant Chief Cherie Penn said that no Minneapolis firefighters, to her knowledge, have gone north to help battle the blaze. The department, she said, does not train its members in any wildfire fighting techniques.

Oakdale fire chief Jeff Anderson is the regional coordinator for volunteer firefighter services.

“At this point there has been no official request for assistance from the National Forest Service or the DNR,” Anderson said. “That’s not to say that couldn’t change. If it does, we’ll be ready. But what we don’t want is guys jumping in their cars, driving up there and saying ‘I’m here to help’.”

BWCA officials couldn't agree more.

"That wouldn't even work," National Forest public information officer Susan Zornek-Stevens said from the Ely-based incident command post. "If someone shows up here, they have to be qualified in incident response under federal government standards to even be allowed to help. It doesn't help for people to just show up (randomly)."

“When you see reports of hundreds of firefighters being sent to the BWCA, they’re usually Wildland or Forest Service personnel from across the country," Anderson said.


What They'll Face

When you've seen this fire rage, as we did, it's easy to understand why not just any firefighter can show up to the BWCA to help.

It is no ordinary fire.

As my five friends and I paddled through the protected wilderness, we never knew the exact nature of the monstrous blaze until we witnessed flames licking the trees at the portage routes.

A choking mixture of smoke and fog reduced visibility to less than 10 feet on the water and, amidst the silence of the BWCA, the mirror-like lakes created an eerie calm.

My group left the BWCA on Sept. 5 through Lake One—an outlet that has since been closed off because of the blaze—as part of a planned trip through an Ely outfitter. The smoke and fog, flames in the trees and a bevy of yellow-clad firefighters along portage routes only hinted at the scale of the impending natural disaster.

Uncharacteristically dry weather and windy conditions in and around Ely turned that smoldering underground fire into the blaze that has destroyed more than 93,000 acres of forest and dominated headlines.

"You guys have had lots of rain down in the (Twin) Cities, but up here, it's been a drought all summer," Gary Gotchnik, owner of Ely-based Wilderness Outfitters, told our group before heading out on Sept. 1.

While in camp, we were cut off from everyone, save the occasional lost hiker of the 29-mile Pow Wow Trail or kayak tourist. Reports of the fire always dominated the conversation.

As the week wore on and the fire continued to rage, the number of people we saw diminished rapidly.

Of course, as I now read the headlines from the safety of home, it's clear I had a rare ringside seat to watch the natural disaster unfold.


Recreation Opportunities Remain

While the Pagami Creek Fire is at once an awesome and sobering example of natural destruction, it is important to note that it makes up less than 9 percent of the BWCA's more than 1 million acres of land.

Which is why BWCA officials are encouraging campers and canoeists to not abandon any plans—at least not yet—to travel to the BWCA this fall.

"The BWCA is not closed," Zornek-Stevens emphasized. "If people want to go out, we highly encourage them to do so. We recommend they call ahead to make sure their intended destination is open but otherwise there are still a lot of recreational and vacation opportunities out there."In fact, as of Sept. 18, firefighters had contained approximately 11 percent of the blaze and the IIS reported that the fire "crept and smoldered along the ground on (Sept. 16)" despite warmer temperatures, dry air and stronger winds.

"The fire has really laid down the last three days," Zornek-Stevens explained. "The winds have slowed and the smoke is not an issue anymore."

For up-to-the-minute information on the Pagami Creek Fire including current restrictions, closures and the fire perimeter visit the IIS website or call the Kawashiwi Ranger District at (218) 365-7600.


Forever Changed

Since my return, I have been watching the fire and the news closely, knowing so much of what I saw up there is now gone.

As the fire is slowly contained, accounts of how the fire could have been prevented are sure to manifest themselves in a bona fide political fight.

Meanwhile I hear of colleagues in Milwaukee and as far south as Chicago complain of the plume of smoke choking their cities, as they are in the direct path of the Northwest winds.

I see my pictures, tell my stories, and realize that nothing there, even now, is the same.

Jeff Roberts is a Twin Cities Local Editor for Patch.com.

Chris September 20, 2011 at 02:34 PM
Hello, please don't despair! The area around your campsite was not distorted, or ravaged, or devastated. It was just burnt, in an area of land that is required to burn in order to maintain itself. For 1,000s of years the area around the BWCA has burnt in a patchwork on average every 50-100 years. But in the 20th century, humans aggressively put out every fire, creating an unnatural buildup of fuel and fire prone habits. Since in Northern Minnesota, the rate of growth is faster than the rate of rot, so fuel will build up and the soil will just grow even weaker than it already is. The uptick of large fires in the past few years is just nature righting itself, and preparing for the next 50-100 years of explosive growth. In fact, the best way to devastate the BWCA would be to prevent it from burning at all, since that would irrevocably change the makeup of the land up there. To love the BWCA you must also love the fire. Look at how it changes over the next 20 years. Compare it to non-burnt areas as you travel through it. But don't think it won't come back stronger than it was. It will.
Chris September 20, 2011 at 02:39 PM
MPR did a short interview with U of M Professor Lee Frelich of the Center for Forest Ecology on the ecological necessity of fire: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2011/09/15/ecology-of-pagami-creek-bwca-fire/
James Sanna (Editor) September 20, 2011 at 03:02 PM
Thanks for that, Chris! Do you go up to the BWCA often?
Chris September 20, 2011 at 04:43 PM
Yes, I have spent most of my time on the eastern side. I was forced to learn more about the ecology after the 95' sag fire, and the 06' Cavity Lake fire, and the 07' Ham lake fire. I have enjoyed watching the explosive growth out of each since then. Different than what I was used to before the fire, but beautiful in a new way. Pagami is almost as big as all three of those fires combined though, it really is huge.
James Sanna (Editor) September 20, 2011 at 04:57 PM
Ah gotcha. So what does it look like today in the areas those three fires burned...what's the difference between 16 years of growth and 4 years of growth?
Chris September 20, 2011 at 05:52 PM
The first few years are explosive growth, and you get a kind of green that you don't see anywhere else. Many red pine and much of the shoreline will be unburnt and will use the extra sun to drop new seedlings. Fire prone balsam should be almost completely eradicated in the burnt area, but will move in quickly from the edges. Aspen, Jack Pine, and Birch will return quickly and with tremendous force. Aspen and birch grow from their roots, so they love the fact that everything else is gone (a theory is that birch bark burns so well because they are trying to burn down their neighbor!). They will use their existing root structure to explode upward, goring a few feet a year. Jack Pine seedlings (which need fire to open their cones) will come in a year, with tens of thousands of seedlings pr acre. It will be a boon to the declining Moose population, who will now have a rich grazing area that is easy to travel. There will be more berries than anyone can eat. The Star Tribune did a good graphic on the process. The only quibble I might have with it is that there is no "final stage" normally. Naturally there will be a patchwork of overlapping burned areas that form their own unique ecological makeup. http://www.startribune.com/newsgraphics/130127123.html

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