Monitoring Fires

When we issue permits this summer, we’ve been able to tell guests consistently “There are no fire restrictions, we’ve had enough rain.” And then I’d go on to rant and rave about leaving campfires cool-to-the-touch.

We’ve had smoke from Canada fires all summer long–and if you’ve been paying attention, they’ve had some biggies. If the wind direction is just right, Manitoba fires can make our eyes water, just a little bit.

And even though conditions aren’t supporting a wildfire around here—doesn’t mean that we humans haven’t started a few. It’s really easy to do, with so many people in the woods. When it is 40 degrees in the morning, the skies are cool, calm, a little cloudy the campfires die down and appear ‘out.’ Then, in the afternoons, when it reaches 80 degrees and the wind picks up, any embers take off again, and passing paddlers see a fire in a grate—with no one attending it.

Most often, good Samaritan paddlers douse these unattended fires, and then return with the stories. But occasionally—more often than we’d like to think, an unattended fire spreads. This last month, fires have been suppressed on Kekakabic, Loon Lake, Brule Lake, Gaskin… The cause isn’t always campfires, sometimes it’s lightening, sometimes the experts can’t or won’t identify the origin. Fire cleans up the ground fuels, it’s supposed to happen—-just not where you and I want to camp next week, I guess.

Earlier in August, we were sent information and a photo of one of the fires on Kekekabic. I have a soft spot for that lake, my ears perk upwhen I hear about Kekakabic—where the USFS completed a prescribed burn last fall.

In January at a ski meet, I was trying to give one of those fire managers in the Ely area a hard time for torching MY FAVORITE lake. He smiled, but would have none of it. When I saw photos of this summer’s fire—I noticed where the smoke and embers might be blowing—I could see the prescribed burn footprint—right in the path of the fire. And I realized—all that mess of blowdown in there, ready to go up like kindling—already burned in a controlled way. I thought AHA! Somebody ought to be smug about this! It’s perfect. Can you see from the photo—that the trees along the shoreline (across from this particular spot), were not burned. Which means, from the paddlers on the lake, the shoreline might still appear pristine.. And behind it—the ground fuels are all cleaned up. We didn’t hear any news of the Great Kekakabic Wild Fire–because there wasn’t one.

Near Ely right now, Pagami Creek Fire: less than 200 acres are burning slowly. According to a recent press release:

Ely, MN… Lightning caused the Pagami Creek Fire that was detected August 18, 2011 approximately 14 miles east of Ely in the Pagami Creek area. The fire is located within the borders of the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) between the South Kawishiwi River, Clearwater Lake and Lake One. This high use area within the BWCAW is a favorite for visitors recreating in northern Minnesota.

Friday, August 26, 2011 a combination of low relative humidity and higher winds caused an increase in size from approximately half an acre to 130 acres. The rapid increase in fire size lead the Superior National Forest to request an Interagency Incident Management Team (IMT) to assist in managing the fire. The role of the Incident Management Team is to “monitor, confine and contain” the Pagami Creek Fire according to Incident Commander Greg Peterson.

The current moderate fire behavior is allowing the Pagami Creek fire to provide several benefits. Fire creates natural fuel breaks by reducing heavy fuel loads. It also helps to preserve the health of the ecosystem of northern MN.

The Pagami Creek fire will be carefully monitored to ensure that it does not become a threat to the safety of the public or firefighters. If there are areas that require containment, crews will use more aggressive firefighting tactics. Hand tools and saws may be used to build containment lines. Aircraft may be used to drop water on the fire. Fire may be used to fight fire by “burning out” or removing fuels from ahead of the fire.

There are no closures in place at this time. Visitors are asked to avoid the Pagami Creek area and immediate fire area. Incident Commander Greg Peterson stressed, “We will be working with the Superior National Forest to develop short term and long term planning to allow visitors to safely enjoy the BWCAW.”

Additional fire information is available at or by calling 218-365-3177.

I’ve seen the competence of the teams they bring in, and while they can protect people and property on the edges of the fire, no amount of human competence can control the conditions that fan a stray spark into a wild fire, or hold a .5 acre fire around a fire grate to wait patiently for some rangers to paddle out and monitor it.

The truth is, the weather makes the rules. Humidity and wind are out of the hands of the management teams. The woods are wild, the fires are necessary. I keep reminding myself. The woods are wild, the fires are necessary………