N. Minn. residents question fire management policies

Firefighters
Two firefighters head into the woods near Isabella on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011 to fight the Pagami Creek fire.
MPR Photo/Steve Foss

The Pagami Creek wildfire is now 23 percent contained, permanent residents evacuated a week ago have been allowed to return, and parts of the Boundary Waters that had been closed are open again.

But that doesn't mean everyone's happy.

Some area residents continue to question the early Forest Service decision to let the now 147-square-mile fire burn, and so do some of the officials who made those decisions.

"Looking at the maps — where that fire was, what it was doing the week before, makes me angry," said Al Jouppi, 73, who runs a small family-owned logging outfit called Jouppi Forest Products a half-mile east of Isabella.

Federal policy is clear: Forest officials are required to manage wilderness areas like the Boundary Waters so that natural processes like fire can run their course as much as possible.

The policy can lead to a tough balancing act, where long-term considerations, such as the health of the nation's natural resources, collide with the short-term need to protect human life and property.

And when the Pagami Creek fire started on Aug. 18, it smoldered for over a week at a size smaller than a quarter-acre in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. But the Forest Service should have put the fire out when it had the chance, Jouppi said.

"As far as our safety, they didn't care," Jouppi said. "Now when there's 500 men on it, bombers, helicopters, cats — now we can't go to work."

Jouppi was logging a Forest Service parcel of timber when he evacuated Sept. 12. His equipment remains where he left it, on the southern edge of the evacuation area. He's worried it could be another two or three weeks before he's allowed to return to finish the job.

Gov. Mark Dayton heard complaints about the wildfire's management at a Monday evening in Isabella.

Several people complained about the lack of information made available last week, when the fire spread out of control to its current size of over 90,000 acres. Others asked why Forest Service officials didn't put out the fire when it first started. In hindsight, Dayton said they would have done just that. He also promised to bring the issue up with the head of the state's Department of Natural Resources.

Superior National Forest District Ranger Mark Van Every said he takes residents' complaints seriously, especially because he made the initial call to manage the fire rather than immediately suppress it.

"I totally feel responsibility for the circumstances and the condition we're in," Van Every said. "I'm trying to make the best, informed decision I can with the best professional information I have at the time to make those decisions."

Last month when the fire started, weather predictions called for a week of steady rain. The Forest Service ran a set of computer models to forecast the fire's behavior. All indications were the fire would stay small, and stay in the wilderness. But it didn't. Almost 740 firefighters have been put to work against the wildfire, including teams from the Rockies, California and New Jersey, and the National Guard. The Canadian province of Manitoba sent two water bombers and an air attack plane, and about 100 elite "hot shot" firefighters from Arizona arrived last week.

"If you were to ask me if I knew on Aug. 18 exactly what the weather was going to do from then until now, would I have put this fire out on August 18th?" Van Every said. "Absolutely, but I didn't know that."

But if the Forest Service put out every wildfire that started, it could actually increase the risk of fire in the long run, said Tim Sexton, a forest ranger with the Superior National Forest District.

"Over time you'd see the disappearance of aspen, and those three pine species, red, white and jack," Sexton said. "The landscape would be dominated by the shade-tolerant species, balsam fir being one that's particularly flammable. I don't think we'd want to see a Boundary Waters that's full of balsam fir."

Not only would a wildfire a more difficult to control, but animal habitat would decrease, Sexton said.

Longtime northern Minnesota resident Jack Morris agrees that fire plays a role in the area's ecology, but believes that the Forest Service is wrong in this case.

"I can understand how it was started naturally and they wanted it to go out naturally, but I think they waited a little too long," Morris said. "They could have predicted this and they didn't, that's my opinion."

Morris thinks forest officials should more closely evaluate their predictive models, so they can better anticipate when a fire could escape the wilderness area.

The Forest Service plans to review its decisions in the management of the Pagami Creek fire. Morris hopes that he and his neighbors in Isabella are consulted in that process.

Meanwhile, firefighters are now feeling more confident about their battle with the Pagami Creek fire. Doug Turman, the commander of the Type 1 Team in charge of the fire, expects that recent rain will keep the fire calm for the next five or six days.

"It will take several days for that to start drying out again for it to be an issue, so that will give us an opportunity to get further and further around it," Turman said. "We're in pretty good shape."

BWCA FIRE MAP

The icons contain photos of the burn area before the fire started. The icons show closed entry points. The icons indicate entry points that are still open to use as of Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011.

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