Wilderness closed: BWCA cleared of visitors amid increased fire danger

Smoke rises from a wildfire
Smoke rises from the John Ek fire in northern Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on Friday.
Superior National Forest

It’s been a hectic few days for Clare Shirley, who owns Sawbill Canoe Outfitters north of Tofte, Minn.

Her business is on Sawbill Lake — a popular Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness entry point about four miles from the Whelp and John Ek fires burning inside the BWCA.

Shirley said she started rerouting customers on Friday when the Forest Service widened a restricted area to include a group of lakes south of the fires.

"[We] went to bed, feeling like we had gotten a handle on it," she recalled Sunday. "Woke up the next morning, got a call early in the morning that said, 'We’re going to shut down the whole wilderness.' And we were like 'OK, we need to call more people.'"

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In the wake of Saturday's closure order — which will remain in effect for at least a week — Shirley said many customers have canceled their trips. Others have opted for camping spots in the Superior National Forest that are outside the BWCA.

“People are surprised. People are sad. (But) I’ve been really heartened by the response," she said. "Most people ask first if we’re OK, which is nice.”

Greenwood Fire in Lake County, Minnesota
A sign along State Highway 1 north of Finland, Minn., tells passersby that they are entering the Superior National Forest, as seen Saturday.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

The U.S. Forest Service is refunding permit fees, and Sawbill has waived its cancellation policy. In between phone calls, Shirley packed food for fire crews.

Besides fighting the fires, the other key priority for the Forest Service now is getting visitors out of the BWCA. Dozens of rangers are paddling their way through the BWCA, telling campers that they need to leave.

“I don’t think of it as an evacuation, but just implementation of a closure,” said Cathy Quinn, a recreation and wilderness specialist with the Forest Service.

Quinn said she knows of no campers who are in harm’s way; rangers have already cleared campsites closest to the fires. She said the BWCA closed entirely so emergency responders can focus on fighting the fires, not rescuing stranded or injured campers.

“Prior to the John Ek fire growing, we did have a search that diverted one of our floatplanes for a period of time,” Quinn said.

Quinn said crews are occasionally using those planes to see if campsites are occupied and to make contact with campers. Some visitors with satellite communication devices are getting the news by text. But word of the closure is mostly moving at canoe speed. Quinn said rangers are trying to reach as many campsites as they can across the million-acre wilderness area.

“They are all paddling. People sometimes think that it’s more efficient to have a motor in these situations, but we found that it actually slows you down. And it limits you, and sometimes can even be a safety hazard," Quinn said. "We’ve been doing this type of work long enough that we know just to stick with the simple tried-and-true canoe and paddle.”

Many firefighters are traveling the same way. While there’ve been aerial water drops on the Whelp and John Ek fires, Forest Service public information officer Sarah Shapiro said most firefighting efforts in the BWCA will be on the ground.

“With air resources, aircraft are designated to the highest priority fire at the time,” she said.

The focus for wildland firefighting crews now is the much larger Greenwood Fire in Lake County, about 40 miles north of Two Harbors. On Friday, it crossed County Highway 2, triggering more evacuations of homes and cabins.

The Forest Service is holding another public meeting at 6 p.m. Monday at the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center near the town of Finland to update the public on firefighting efforts throughout northeastern Minnesota.