As BWCA fire dies, call for controlled burns is renewed

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Heavily damaged campsite
Campsite #1 on Lake Insula was heavily damaged by the Pagami Creek fire.
Photo courtesy Superior National Forest

Firefighters have contained 67 percent of the Pagami Creek Fire, erasing fears that the blaze could threaten area homes. But in northern Minnesota, some are still angry that Forest Service officials decided not to snuff out the fire when it first ignited.

The fire's rapid expansion to nearly 100,000 acres has some people calling for a more aggressive use of controlled burns in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area as the best way to balance the benefits and the dangers of fire.

Advocates for such a policy can't help but remember what happened on July 4, 1999, when 90-mile per gusts ripped across the Boundary Waters. Millions of trees were torn out of the ground. The big blowdown created one heck of a fire hazard, and the Forest Service was well aware of the risk.

So over the past decade, fire managers have conducted prescribed burns on nearly 50,000 acres of what's commonly known as the blowdown area. Another 25,000-acre burn is planned.

Loggers were allowed to salvage some timber outside of the wilderness area. Those actions reduced the fire hazard, and also helped ensure that any future fire raging across the landscape would be starved for fuel, as the Pagami Creek Fire has.

"It would hit areas that have been burned and so the fuels have been reduced, and therefore slow down the progress of the fire," said Tim Norman, deputy fire management officer for the Chippewa and Superior National Forests.

"It would be kind of like if you pulled out every third or fourth block of your patio, and then tried to roll a ping pong ball across that," he said. "It's not going to roll as nice as it would if was that uniform condition."

Slightly damaged campsite
Campsite #15 on Lake Insula was damaged only slightly by the Pagami Creek fire. Some vegetation in the background burned, but even a small stack of firewood near the hearth is intact. The latrine head was brought down into the site by the crew as they swept Lake Insula before the fire.
Photo courtesy Superior National Forest

In 2006, the Cavity Lake fire spread into one of those prescribed burn areas along the Gunflint Trail — and stopped. Because the fire ran out of trees to burn, it stayed within the wilderness area. That's why some experts, like Lee Frelich, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Forest Ecology, are calling for more controlled burning in the Boundary Waters.

"I would envision management where there would be occasional prescribed fires to supplement the natural fires if necessary, if the natural fires don't do the work that needs to be done," Frelich said.

But here's the catch: It's against the law. The Forest Service only conducted those burns because the blowdown created a fire risk that jeopardized public safety. Otherwise forest officials can't intentionally set fires in wilderness areas like the Boundary Waters.

They can only manage fires that start naturally by lightning, like the Pagami Creek Fire did.

That bothers critics of the Forest Service's fire policy, among them science journalist Greg Breining of St. Paul.

"Lightning rarely starts fires when and where you want them," Breining said. "What you end up with, instead of a let-burn policy, is a rarely-burn policy, and so fire doesn't really do the job that it did historically, or that you might want it to perform today."

Not only do fires prevent fuel from building to dangerous levels, they help rejuvenate the forest. Some trees like the jack pine even need fire to reproduce.

"If we go in and start tinkering around to a great degree, it's not going to be a wilderness anymore."

Prescribed fires provide some control. Fire managers can light them exactly where and when they want them. But they employ the technique only when they already have crews in place to manage them, weather conditions are optimal, and there aren't a lot of people around.

Superior National Forest District Ranger Tim Sexton said that, in Minnesota, such conditions typically exist only in late fall, "when snow's around the corner, the days are shorter, and the risk of it escaping are very, very slim."

But given that none of the controlled burns in the blowdown area have gotten away from firefighters, the question for fire managers is, why not do more?

"One of the reasons we have wilderness is to allow natural processes to work," Sexton said. "If we go in and start tinkering around to a great degree, it's not going to be a wilderness anymore; it's going to be a managed landscape."

Prescribed burns are heavily managed. They can involve a dozen aircraft and over 100 firefighters on the ground. They're also expensive: $90,000 a day. But that's cheap compared to the cost of fighting the Pagami Creek Fire, now more than $12 million.

Frelich, of the University of Minnesota, concedes there are no easy answers.

"It's a messy business and there is no perfect way to manage an ecosystem that depends on big, high-intensity fires," he said. "I mean, we're never going to have complete control there, either inside the wilderness or outside the wilderness."

Frelich recommends a combination of approaches that include prescribed fires and managing natural fires like the Pagami Creek Fire. For all the inconvenience it caused and money it required to fight, he said, it was "quite an ideal fire" for the health of the forest."

He also suggests forest thinning outside the wilderness.

"If you remove understory vegetation, and thin the canopy a little bit so that the crowns of the trees aren't touching, then the intensity of a fire that's approaching might drop to the levels where it can actually be extinguished," Frelich said.

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