Firefighters recount harrowing day during Pagami Creek fire

View from Insula
A view of the Pagami Creek Fire taken by MPR listener Bob Anderson shortly before he evacuated the area.
Photo submitted to MPR from Bob Anderson

Superior National Forest officials have detailed the harrowing story of six wilderness rangers who were nearly burned to death in the Boundary Waters during the battle to contain the Pagami Creek fire last year. The rangers all survived uninjured. But the incident has forced the Forest Service to change its approach to wildfires.

On Sept. 12, 2011, a team of National Forest rangers paddled canoes across Lake Insula in the Boundary Waters, about 25 miles from Ely. Their job was to evacuate any campers still remaining. The best information at the time indicated they had at least a day or two before the fire would reach this point.

Instead, they were met with winds roaring up to 40 mph, which drove the blaze over 15 miles that day, according to Forest Service spokeswoman Kris Reichenbach.

"Afterwards we were hearing from firefighters who had years and years -- a lifetime of experience -- who said they had never seen anything like this, and never would have dreamed that we could have had that kind of behavior," said Reichenbach.

Keweenaw Bay Indian Community crew
A crew from the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community works a line off Forest Road 356i north of Isabella, Minn., near the southern edge of the Pagami Creek Fire in 2011.
Photo for MPR by Steve Foss

In short, unadorned sentences, the Forest Service report details a gripping story based on interviews with the rangers on Lake Insula.

They were two to a canoe, paddling frantically. The sky turned pitch black and smoky. The noise from the fire roared in their ears. Bats flushed by as the fire swooped above their canoes.

The report details events when two of the rangers decide to abandon their canoe.

Here's that portion of the report:

"The fire's coming. It's pitch black. Jess pulls off her rubber boots, and shouts over the wind to Jamie, 'It's time to go in!' Jamie: 'You mean, now?' They slip into the cold water. The canoe swings around and hits Jess in the head. She goes underwater. Jamie is strong and she shoves the canoe away; it disappears with their gear. Their shelters are partly unfolded. They are treading water and working to get their shelters open but in the wind and waves, it's hard to get them open all the way. They decide to let a shelter go and share one.

"They're drifting north, holding on to each other with one hand, trying to hold the shelter down with the other. But the waves are chaotic, and hard to time, and under the shelter they can't see them coming. The shelter keeps almost wrapping around their heads. With each breath, they don't know when it's going to hit them in the face and block their airway. They struggle to keep their heads above water, and Jamie's life jacket is riding up and choking her. The water is cold, and the waves are big, and they think they are going to drown.

"Within minutes, it's suddenly hard to breathe. They hesitate to lift the shelter: will the air outside sear our lungs? They need breathable air; they open it a crack. It's black outside, except for huge sparks of flying fire like someone's shooting machine guns at them.

"Inside the shelter, it goes from pitch black to bright orange, over and over. They think they're going to die, and it feels like they've been in the water forever. They lift the shelter for air and see a shoreline engulfed in huge flames, and the waves are pushing them toward it. They try to kick out into open water. But they're tired from being tossed around."

(Read the full report below.)

After what they estimate to be 45 minutes in the water, the two rangers make it to a rocky outcropping and escape the water.

Meanwhile, the other four had beached their canoes on a nearby island. They crawled in their fire shelters as they were pelted by flaming embers. In the end, all escaped unharmed.

This narrative is more than just a compelling read. It's designed to identify what worked well, and what changes fire managers should make in the future to prevent a similar close call.

The report revealed several of the rangers hesitated to use their fire shelters, even with the fire bearing down on them, according to Reichenbach.

"There is somewhat of a stigma -- and we're working really hard to overcome that perception that some people have that maybe the fire shelter is that last, last, last-ditch effort, and people don't want to recognize that that's where they're at," Reichenbach said.

The analysis called for several changes in battling future fires. It recommends using more canoes with motors, as well as airplanes, to speed evacuations. The report also says better communication is needed among firefighters and Forest Service rangers on the front lines.

In addition, the report calls for better fire prediction modeling that takes into account the hotter and drier conditions of the past several years, according to Carl Skustad, an assistant forest ranger for recreation and wilderness, based in Ely.

"We actually have our fire research and science working on the modeling systems," said Skustad. "We're also working with the National Weather Service to incorporate some more of these factors into our modeling and into our forecasting, so we can get some of these outliers predicted into our models better in the future."

On Monday Skustad will take over as Acting District Ranger in Ely. He replaces Mark Van Every, who's moving to a job in Texas.

Van Every took a lot of flack last year for the Forest Service decision not to immediately extinguish the Pagami Creek Fire, before it had a chance to spread to 100,000 acres. Internal Forest Service reviews of those management decisions have been delayed for months. But Reichenbach, the Forest Service spokeswoman, now says they're likely to be released in the next three weeks.