Survivors reflect on the day the Pagami Creek Fire exploded 10 years ago

Smoke plume
Smoke from the Pagami Creek fire on Sept. 10, 2011. "The smoke plume went straight up and then plateaued high above our heads. While fishing, it felt like a big storm was brewing, but in reality the skies were blue and clear, except for the incredible effect of the fire," said Greg Seitz, communications director for the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.
Courtesy of Greg Seitz 2011

On Sept. 12, 2011, six forest service wilderness rangers had a mission to clear Insula Lake, in the middle of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, of campers.

The Pagami Creek Fire had grown the day before, but it was still about 8 miles away from them.

“So nothing to worry about too much," said Nancy Hernesmaa, a ranger who was on duty that day.

Worst-case fire predictions called for the fire to possibly hit the south end of Insula Lake by the end of her shift that day.

Hernesmaa and her partner paddled along the lake's south shore that morning, telling remaining campers to leave and closing down campsites, when, suddenly, they knew the fire was close — a lot closer than it was supposed to be.

"The sky was turning orange, smoke levels were making breathing and vision difficult. Yeah ... the hair was up on my neck," said Hernesmaa.

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Smoke plumes
Plumes of smoke from the Pagami Creek fire rise over trees on Tomahawk Road near Isabella, Minn., on Sept. 11, 2011.
Steve Foss for MPR News

‘I couldn't imagine I would be able to live through this’

They paddled frantically northward, but quickly realized they weren't going to be able to outrun the fire. Hernesmaa told her partner to get her fire shelter ready. Then they were enveloped in darkness.

"The shoreline had disappeared. We couldn't tell if we were paddling in circles, we had no idea," she said.

They put on hard hats and their fire resistant Nomex shirts. Hernesmaa felt a burst of heat on her back, saw embers fly overhead. They jumped into the lake. But the waves were relentless. The wind whipped the canoe around and slammed Hernesmaa in the head, knocking her underwater.

Her partner, whose name Hernesmaa asked not be used in the story, was having trouble opening her fire shelter in the water, so they both ducked under Hernesmaa's.

"I honestly think that's what allowed us to remain calm and keep us alive. At least for me. She was such a rock,” Hernesmaa said of her partner. “And when I would ask how she's doing, and had some small talk back and forth, her calmness with the situation could have totally gotten out of hand had she not been so solid."

Under the shelter they held hands so they didn't get separated. They held on to the fire shelter with their other hands. Outside the light went from pitch black to bright orange to black again, over and over. And the waves kept pounding, breaking over their heads.

"We're swallowing a lot of water at this point, the winds are so erratic that the shelter would just suck into our faces, it would then blow back out,” said Hernesmaa. “And between that action and the waves breaking over the top of us, we could not time our breaths. I seriously thought I was going to drown. I couldn't imagine I would be able to live through this."

Unprecedented fire

In just a couple hours the Pagami Creek Fire had roared 8 miles east, driven by relentless winds, low humidity and a forest that was overdue for fire. It burned through a part of the Boundary Waters where there hadn't been any wildfires in 150 years.

In fact, an analysis after the fire found that the Forest Service had extinguished around 50 small fires that had started inside the footprint of Pagami in the past several decades, that, if allowed to burn, would have created a patchwork of younger, more fire-resistant forest that could have prevented the fire from becoming the conflagration it did.

"What we faced was something that had never been faced before, in that part of the country,” said Tim Sexton, a district ranger at the time for the Superior National Forest. “Never had a fire burned like that in modern times."

Sexton is now a wildland fire research director for the U.S. Forest Service, and a national expert in fire behavior modeling. He's taught the course on the subject at the National Fire Training Center for more than 20 years.

That day on the Pagami Creek Fire, he said they never fathomed the fire could move as fast as it did, as far as it did. At the very outside they thought the fire might grow to 20,000 acres that day. Instead it grew to more than four times that.

"We did some fire behavior modeling, and felt we had a cushion of safety in the areas that we had closed to the public,” said Sexton. “We thought the fire might get up and move with the winds. But the modeling indicated it would go a mile or two or three."

A wall of flames

Instead the fire ran 8 miles to the east, where it overtook Hernesmaa and her partner in Insula Lake, propelled by winds that gusted for hours more than they were forecast, and an unstable atmosphere that stoked the blaze like a fireplace with its flue wide open.

Then a wind shift that afternoon pushed it another 6 miles, straight to where Julie and Greg Welch were camped on Kawasachong Lake.

Greg Welch says it looked like a wall of flames coming at them.

"Everything I could see, looking west was on fire,” he said. “The fire was blowing so fast and so hard that it was actually throwing flames well above the trees."

From that point he estimates it only took about five minutes before the fire was on top of them, at the lake below their campsite.

"We were at the bottom of this 25-foot bank and the fire came over the top of the bank. And it was literally like, you know, having a blowtorch, blow above your head,” he recalled.

Pagami Creek Fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area
Greg Welch and his wife Julie were overtaken by the Pagami Creek Fire in the Kawasachong Lake area, but survived by jumping in the lake.
Courtesy of Greg Welch

Julie Welch hopped into her kayak and pushed off shore, evaporating into the darkness. Greg Welch followed.

"As I pushed off there was kind of a big gust of wind and it picked up the smoke a little bit off the lake so we could actually see each other again,” he said. “And right at that moment, a wind gust came in and actually flipped her out of her boat into the water. And her kayak just kind of disappeared into the smoke."

Greg Welch tried to paddle toward Julie, but the wind made it impossible to get close. So he jumped into the lake, holding on to his kayak, and swam to her. By this point fire had surrounded them on all sides of the lake.

"I guess the best way to describe it is it was kind of like, if you were in a house fire and your house had no doors to get out. That was kind of how it felt,” he said. “It was just like there was nowhere to go, you know, everything was on fire, the islands were on fire. ... And we had no idea at the time how long this was going to last."

Firestorm sounded like a freight train

The waves were huge. The fire radiated intense heat over the water. There was smoke and ash everywhere. They used wet shirts and jackets to cover their faces and dove underwater periodically to clear their mouths and noses.

“It was just all you could do just to hang on to the boat in the water,” Greg Welch said. “It was just a constant bombardment of live coals coming at you. And it was very loud.”

The noise was like a freight train.

"We were actually sitting almost side by side in the water on the kayak, and we literally had to scream at each other to actually understand what the other person was saying," he said.

Greg Welch and his wife Julie who survived the Pagami Creek Fire.
Greg Welch and his wife Julie with their dog Penelope. The couple survived the Pagami Creek Fire in September 2011 by jumping in a lake. Penelope "was not there during the fire, thankfully," says Greg.
Courtesy of Greg Welch

They were wearing life jackets, but Julie Welch was having trouble staying above the waves.

"So yeah, it was a pretty intense moment for sure. We had some conversations between us about our daughters at the time,” he said. “My wife was concerned that we weren't going to make it. I had that same concern as well."

After a while the fear of the fire shifted to fear of the cold. They both started experiencing hypothermia from the frigid water. They allowed the wind to push them toward the eastern shore of the lake, where they ran into a couple of large rocks sticking out of the water. And as they sat there, everything suddenly changed.

"Basically the wind started kind of coming straight down from above,” said Greg Welch.

The giant plume above the fire, more than 30,000 feet tall, had collapsed.

"It started raining, just a tremendous downpour of rain, and then it's lightning and thundering and it was just all hell broke loose, literally."

They were huddled together to protect themselves. It started to hail. And then, just as suddenly as it started, it all stopped. The rain, the noise, the smoke cleared. The sun came out.

"Right after that it just stopped,” he said. “It was just amazing. The noise stopped. The smoke went away. The sun came back out. And it was like it never happened. It was just the craziest moment.”

A forest after a wildfire.
Shortly after the plume, clouds created by the Pagami Creek Fire collapsed and put the fire out in the Kawasachong Lake area in September 2011.
Courtesy of Greg Welch

The ‘Pagami protocol’

Back on Insula Lake, when the smoke cleared, Hernesmaa and her partner reunited with the other four rangers, who had deployed their fire shelters nearby on a small rock island. They crammed into two stuffy tents that night and were flown out the next day.

It was the first time anyone in Minnesota had deployed fire shelters during a wildfire, and the first time in the country someone had done so in open water.

Looking back, Hernesmaa thinks about the last group of campers she evacuated before the fire hit.

"That day their campsite was totally nuked, it was totally burnt over as all the sites were down on that end of Insula. We figured we probably saved about five to seven lives that day."

The Pagami Creek Fire eventually burned more than 90,000 acres. It cost more than $20 million to finally extinguish. No one was killed by the fire.

But forest service officials say they learned a very valuable lesson from Pagami, about the need to keep the public — and firefighters and rangers — a safe distance from fire.

They say that lesson is evident in the decisions officials made this year to close large areas of the Boundary Waters near active wildfires.

Patty Johnson, zone fire management officer for the east side of the Superior National Forest, said they are constantly thinking about Hernesmaa and her fellow rangers when they're making decisions about current fires.

"What I'm hearing this year is a term called the ‘Pagami protocol,’ ” she said. “And I've never heard that before. But I'm hearing it everywhere. And what it is, is that all of our wilderness rangers have to work under someone with certain types of operation qualifications, they have to check in day and night."

Officials talk through in greater detail about whether to send rangers in to certain places, based on the weather and fire conditions.

Johnson said Hernesmaa and the others were lost track of in the midst of everything going on. And she said that at the time the assumption was that even if the fire reached them at Insula, they would be safe on such a large lake.

"And so all of that heightened sense of taking care of our folks on the ground [is a priority], and not missing anybody out there," said Johnson.

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.
Steve Foss for MPR News 2011

Tim Sexton has worked on hundreds of wildfires during his career. But the details of the Pagami Creek Fire are still vivid in his mind, 10 years later, because of the threat to human lives it posed, he said.

“I learned a very valuable lesson on that fire. And I think most people associated with it did, about the need to keep the public and our own firefighters a safe distance from the fire and provide safe working locations for our own folks. And we didn't do that as well as we would have liked.”