Efforts to control the unpredictable Pagami Creek Fire in northeastern Minnesota have entered a more aggressive phase with the deployment of elite fire crews from the Rocky Mountain West.
But while these firefighters have a lot of expertise in battling big, complex fires in arid and mountainous terrain, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness presents challenges many of them have never faced before.
Like paddling a canoe.
One team of "hotshot" firefighters spent Thursday at a Boy Scouts high adventure camp on Moose Lake, on the edge of the Boundary Waters, learning the basics of paddling, portaging and staying safe on the water. About half of the firefighters present have never been in a canoe.
Portaging proved to be one of the tougher lessons. One firefighter stumbled as he figured out how to hoist a heavy aluminum canoe on his shoulders.
"I'm going backwards!" he exclaimed.
"For some of them it has been a complete fish out of water experience," said Carl Boyles, the director of programs for the Boy Scouts Northern Tier. He's been tapped to train the firefighters.
"They're used to fighting fires but never in a lake environment, so they're surrounded by all this fire and all this water at the same time," he said. "Staying dry I think is going to be the biggest challenge that we have out there, getting wet feet kind of tears them up pretty good."
Tosten Kulaas, of northern Arizona's Happy Jack Hotshots team, said that just getting out to the fire lines will be tough. He and his teammates will be hauling diesel water pumps and other heavy equipment in their canoes and over portages.
"We've been mostly fighting fire in the southwest, which is pretty fast-paced. This is going to be slow and methodical," he said.
Kulass and his fellow crewmembers will be on the fire's northwest flank, near where it first started nearly a month ago east of Ely.
“For some of them it has been a complete fish-out-of-water experience.”Carl Boyles, Boy Scouts Northern Tier program director
Their tools are simple, mainly shovels and chainsaws. It seems primitive compared with action on the burned out wilderness on the fire's southern perimeter wilderness. There, National Guard Blackhawk helicopters are dumping fire retardant, and bulldozers are cutting wide fire lines.
But fire information officer Doug Anderson said simple canoes efficiently transport crews where there aren't any roads, and few places for helicopters to land: "We get them in there as fast as we can, and that's sometimes the fastest way to get them in."
WILDERNESS AREAS REQUIRE LIGHTER APPROACH
It's also partly a policy decision. Superior National Forest District Ranger Mark Van Every said designated wilderness areas require firefighters to take a lighter approach.
"We don't want to have four bulldozer wide lines through the middle of the wilderness," he said. "The values that are at risk are different. Wilderness is managed to allow natural processes to play their normal role, and fire is a part of those natural processes, and fire over history is what created the vegetation we have there today."
That's not to say they don't make exceptions.
Firefighters will be allowed to use chainsaws to clear lines to prevent the fire from spreading. But they'll camp in established areas, and even follow BWCA limits of eight people per campsite.
That's familiar protocol to firefighter Chris Hedgeman with the Black Mesa Hotshots in northern Arizona, who said they're used to working in wilderness areas throughout the West.
"We try to do what we can [to have] the littlest impact on the land with the chainsaws, with the digging of the land, so we'll try to do the same things out here that we've been doing all year," he said.
Hedgeman and other hotshot crews plan to work their way east on the fire's northern edge.
There are now about 500 firefighters struggling to control the fire. Many are on the southern perimeter, where they're trying to prevent it from moving toward homes near the town of Isabella.
With prevailing winds blowing out of the west, and a lot of empty wilderness in front of it, fire officials expect the Pagami Creek Fire to continue burning for a long time.