First smoke, then fire? BWCA braces for the worst

Wildland firefighting crews conduct mop-up work
Wildland firefighting crews conduct mop-up work on the Delta Lake fire east of Ely, Minn.
Eastern Area Type 2 Incident Management Team | Courtesy Superior National Forest

Just how dry is it in northeastern Minnesota? Ellen Bogardus-Szymaniak, a district ranger for the Superior National Forest, said typically the raspberries would be booming right now. Not this year.

"The raspberries look like they've been dehydrated on the vine,” Bogardus-Szymaniak said. “They're tiny. They're smaller than the tip of your little finger."

Almost all of Minnesota is in drought, but some of the driest conditions have persisted in the north. Kenny Blumenfeld, senior climatologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said some northern areas have missed out on many of the heavy rains that have hit elsewhere in Minnesota during previous summers. 

"And so, some of these areas, you can actually see moisture deficits beginning as many as three or four years ago," he said.

As a result it's not just the raspberries that are dry, it's the entire forest.

“The large fuels are just, you know, drier than what the type of wood you would get at Home Depot," Bogardus-Szymaniak said, adding that green trees that would normally slow fire spread are also stressed from drought. And she said black spruce swamps that are normally wet, have dried out.

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"So that is one of those critical points that firefighters look for,” explained Bogardus-Szymaniak. “Do we have a natural barrier besides the lake? Can we use our wetlands as natural barriers to slow fire spread? And right now? No, that's not working."

Right now just one major fire is burning in the Superior National Forest. The Delta Lake fire started about two weeks ago, east of Ely on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. More than 200 firefighters from around the country are currently working to contain the fire, which has held steady at about 65 acres.

Wildland firefighting crews conduct mop-up work
Wildland firefighting crews conduct mop-up work on the Delta Lake fire east of Ely, Minn., earlier this month.
Eastern Area Type 2 Incident Management Team | Courtesy Superior National Forest

Meanwhile, several fires are burning unchecked in Canada in Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park. One of those has burned to the edge of Crooked Lake, less than two miles from land in Minnesota on the opposite side.

Because of the fire, the Superior National Forest over the weekend preemptively closed down a large swath of the western Boundary Waters, south of the border and north of the Echo Trail.

Forest Service spokesperson Joanna Gilkeson said wilderness rangers began canoeing into the area on Saturday, making a systematic sweep and telling people campsite by campsite about the closure. 

Gilkeson said she doesn't know the exact number of people evacuated, but she said rangers met a lot of people, especially closer to entry points into the wilderness.

"Further north, it's not as heavily used,” Gilkeson said. “But the second area of the closure is a more heavily used area. So they did come into contact with quite a few people."

Some of those campers didn't have cars waiting for them when they paddled back to where they entered the Boundary Waters. In many cases, outfitters had driven them to where they started their trips.

"And we don't know exactly when they're coming out because there really is no cell phone coverage up on the northwest end of the echo trail," said Steve Piragis, who owns Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely, adding that he spent a couple days driving between entry points looking for clients.

Piragis said he's also working with clients who had trips scheduled for the closed area to try to plan new trips. But there are very few permits available elsewhere in the wilderness.

Of even more concern, Piragis said, is what the rest of the summer could bring. If the fires burning in the Quetico merged, a north wind could drive them quickly across the border into the Boundary Waters, he said.

"It's kind of scary, actually. And when you walk in the woods right now, there's not a lot of activity, Piragis said. “You know, there's not many birds singing. It's really, really still. And it feels like the quiet before the storm."

Forest Ranger Bogardus-Szymaniak said this year's fire season will likely last until it snows.

"Now does it mean that we're going to have raging forest fires every day?” she said. “No. It ebbs and flows."

For example, she said the cold front that pushed smoke from Canadian fires south this week also brought some rain and humidity that moderated fire activity. But now she says the region is entering what's typically the dry season, and what's normally the start of fire activity.

If you're traveling up north or visiting the Boundary Waters, officials say to make sure where you want to go is open and to obey campfire restrictions. Fires are currently only allowed in some national forest campgrounds. 

“This area is really seeing unprecedented dry conditions,” said Cecile Stelter, a public information officer for the team fighting the Delta Lake fire. “And we really, really ask the public to think before they have any kind of fires. We just ask people to hold off and use care when they're out recreating.”