Rangers working to locate, clear campers after BWCA closure order

A wildfire burns in a forest
The Whelp Fire burns in Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on Saturday.
Superior National Forest | Minnesota Incident Command System

Several dozen rangers continued working Sunday to clear visitors from northern Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, after increased fire activity prompted officials to close the BWCA.

The full closure of the popular canoe destination started Saturday and will last at least a week. Officials said in addition to wildfire activity, the closure was driven by concerns about limited resources to respond to other emergencies in the wilderness.

Cathy Quinn is a recreation and wilderness specialist for the Superior National Forest; she's in contact with rangers traveling by canoe to sweep lakes and rivers on the east side of the BWCA. Those she has talked to haven't reported any difficulties in their interactions with campers.

"We know people plan a long time to do these trips. And it's a big deal. They come from faraway places, and to have their trip canceled or cut short is disappointing," Quinn said. "But I think by and large, most people understand the need. Even if they're not near the fires, I do feel like people ... understand the bigger picture that is at stake."

Quinn emphasized that it's not an emergency evacuation; previous closure orders that had been in place mean no campers are in harm's way. And the rangers are focusing on areas closest to the fires first. It can be slow-going — made more difficult in some areas by low water levels due to the ongoing drought.

Quinn said that in addition to canoes, floatplanes also are being used to locate paddlers. It's a daunting task to find campers scattered across the million-acre wilderness.

"For instance, a lake that has maybe four different portages, that you can come and go from out of that one lake — you can paddle it in the morning and make sure everyone's gone and come back in the afternoon and there might be a new crop of people in there," Quinn said. "So we've been going back over some lakes, both ... physically on the ground with our crews, but then also re-sweeping or pre-sweeping with aircraft as well."

Quinn said they've received staffing help from other national forests around the Midwest.

The two main fires of concern within the BWCA as of this weekend are the lightning-caused Whelp and John Ek fires, burning west and northwest of Sawbill Lake.

The John Ek fire was estimated at 727 acres as of Sunday morning — better mapping brought that figure down from the 1,500 acres reported on Saturday. It grew rapidly from just 3 acres early Friday.

The Whelp fire is about 50 acres. Neither fire spread much on Saturday thanks to cooler temperatures and water drops from aircraft — though the region saw little if any rain over the weekend, and the forest remains extremely dry.

Both fires are in remote, hard-to-reach locations, and crews are working to gain access on the ground.

Firefighting resources — including aircraft — have been stretched thin with priority given to the larger Greenwood Fire that has been threatening homes and cabins in Lake County, south of the BWCA. Crews are also monitoring several smaller fires in or near the BWCA.

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