Did the Forest Service get burned?
ELY -- If not for five hours on Sept. 12, the name Pagami Creek fire might have faded forever into the spruce bogs and jackpine forests of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness -- just another in the string of 435 lightning fires recorded in the wilderness since 1987.
It was during those five hours -- after weeks of drought, under 80-degree sunshine and fanned by 30-mph winds -- when the fire morphed from a slow-
moving, wilderness-renewing "management" tool into a rolling conflagration that threatened campers, homes, resorts and residents.
Forest fire experts with 30 years and more experience say they had never seen anything like it before in Minnesota -- a fire so hot and fast it "vaporized" trees and soil as it moved 16 miles between about noon and 5 p.m. on that hot September day.
"We've never had a run like that, ever," said Paul Tine', a retired U.S. Forest Service fire specialist.
That was the explanation Thursday from top U.S. Forest Service officials, both those in charge of snuffing the blaze, on loan from western state forests, and leaders of the Superior National Forest who are stationed here.
Of those 435 documented lightning fires that officials watched, some were doused. But, at least since 1995, many were allowed to burn as fires have done for centuries in the northern forest. Pagami was the first to escape the wilderness border, said Jim Sanders, Superior National Forest supervisor.
That escape has drawn criticism from some local residents and state political leaders, including U.S. Sen. Al Franken, who after touring the fire last week said that Pagami Creek may not only be the exception to the rule by escaping the BWCAW but also may be the "exception that changes the rule" of allowing some BWCAW fires to burn.
Officials said they finally had a chance Thursday to pause from marshaling the fire fight to fully explain their side of the story. They defended their decision to at first let the tiny Pagami Creek fire smolder for several days after lightning started the fire in a drought-dried spruce swamp.
Contrary to popular belief, "we never allowed that fire to do whatever it wanted, we had a fire management plan from Day 1," said Mark Van Every, Kawishiwi District ranger in charge of that region of the Superior National Forest.
Officials also defended their decision to drop gasoline on the northern edge of the fire Sept. 3-5 in an effort to intentionally burn nearly 2,000 acres to create a fire break to protect the Fernberg Road and Lake One developed areas of homes, cabins and resorts.
They showed computer models that concluded the Sept. 11 run -- more than 80,000 of the 94,000 acres burned happened that single day, most during that five-hour stretch -- was not caused by their intentional burn on Sept. 5; that the natural fire would have spread nearly as far on that unusual day; and indeed that their intentional fire and "fuels removal'' over Labor Day weekend appears to have stopped the fire cold from moving north and west into developed area.
"That action has been extremely effective at keeping the fire from going where we didn't want it to go," Van Every said. Only one state-owned shack has burned in the fire and the fire hasn't burned any privately owned land.
Sanders said allowing small fires to burn supports the cycle of forest renewal and reduces the amount of dead tree fuel available for potential monster fires in the future. When big fires run into areas that have burned in recent years, they usually die down.
But Superior Forest officials also conceded that the end result -- the largest and fastest fire in Minnesota in decades -- was something they never expected, something their computer programs never predicted and something never seen in more than a half-century of serious forest fire management in the region.
"Had I known on Aug. 18 what I know today, I would have put that fire out," Van Every said at a media briefing.
He explained how his Ely office team developed a fire management plan for the fire on Aug. 18, but that it showed no sign of growing beyond an acre for days. A computer model showed less than a 1 percent chance of the fire ever growing beyond 2,000 acres, based on the weather forecast and the fire's behavior so far.
But on Aug. 26 the fire made a little run, to 130 acres. Considering the region's drought, Van Every and others immediately called for a fire command team. Leaders of that team determined the intentional fire was the best tool to keep the fire from moving north, but it was a little too damp to get a good fire started. It took several days of trying, and some 1,700 gallons of jelled gasoline dropped from aircraft, to get that job done.
Sanders said he made the decision to go ahead with the intentional burn. And from Sept 7-10, it appeared the fire was dying down. Considering the usual cool, wet weather that September brings, the fire shouldn't have been a problem.
But on Sept. 10, now three weeks without rain and fueled by a week of unusually hot, windy weather, the fire began to grow. Winds increased. The forest dried even more on Sept. 11, with a big jump in burned acres that hinted at what was to come the next day.
On Sept. 12, all hell broke loose for five hours.
Sanders praised the efforts by state, local and federal law enforcement and fire agencies in the area for planning for a decade for just such emergencies. Fire protection, road closure and evacuation plans went mostly smoothly, Sanders said.
While the entire fire effort will be extensively reviewed and critiqued within the Forest Service and wildfire community, Sanders said he doubts the Forest Service will change the policy of allowing some natural fires to burn. Without those, insects, disease and drought will continue to take their toll and render trees into
tinder-dry fuel ready for a monster fire.
Fire ecologists have determined that, for centuries, what is now the 1.1 million acre BWCAW burned extensively on average every 50 to 100 years. Those fires shaped the scenery and ecosystem that have made it the most visited wilderness area in the nation.
"Allowing fires to play a natural role has real benefits," Sanders said. "We can learn from this ... but that fact won't change."