Ten years later: Lessons from the Pagami Creek Fire

Walking down the portage trail to Isabella Lake on the southern edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, evidence of the Pagami Creek Fire’s destruction is still visible all around.

Blackened snags poke skyward, the decaying skeletons of huge trees that were scorched by the fire.

On top of a rocky knob overlooking the lake, the burn’s scar is visible to the northwest as far as the eye can see. Across Isabella Lake, across vast stretches of forest, all the way to Hudson and Insula Lakes, Lakes One, Two, Three and Four east of Ely, Minn., the fire burned.

Unprecedented weather conditions drove the fire 16 miles on Sept. 12, 2011. A wildfire had never moved that fast and that far in a single day in northern Minnesota.

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A decade later, there are still big patches of exposed rock and blackened husks of trees stretching to the horizon.

A section of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness burned
A section of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness burned during the Pagami Creek Fire about 12 miles north of Isabella, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

But growing up around the snags are all kinds of new plants and trees — the rebirth of a boreal forest.

"Baby red pines! Whoooo!!" shouted Ellen Bogardus-Szymaniak, a district ranger for the Superior National Forest, when she spotted young seedlings sprouting up from the forest floor on a visit this week.

"They're very hard to regenerate. They need to have burning and heat,” she said. “That's so cool."

Fires, she explained, remove competing vegetation and expose the mineral soil that the red pine seedlings need to sprout. Without regular wildfires or other disturbances to the forests, it’s tough for red pines to naturally regrow.

That’s just one of the many lessons that the Pagami Creek Fire — the largest wildfire Minnesota experienced in more than a century — reinforced.

Northeastern Minnesota’s forests evolved with fire; they need it to remain healthy. The blaze renewed a huge swath of the forest in the Boundary Waters, creating new plant and animal habitat and fireproofing the landscape for future generations.

Red pines and jack pines
Red pines and jack pines as tall as 20 feet begin to take over an area of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near Trail Center that was burned by the Pagami Creek Fire in 2011.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

But it also renewed a belief among forest managers that they need to do everything in their power to keep people safe around fire. The Pagami Creek Fire moved so fast that it overtook some campers and wilderness rangers, who only survived by deploying fire shelters and jumping in lakes.

“In the wilderness, fire is good,” said Bogardus-Szymaniak. “But we have to balance that with firefighter and public safety.”

A forest renewed, a landscape changed

It’s startling to see how quickly the forest has regrown in the area burned by the Pagami Creek Fire.

The forest surrounding Isabella Lake is now a carpet of young, healthy jack pines, already 20 or more feet tall.

“Here's a good example of how thick it can get,” said the Forest’s Carl Skustad, pointing at a grove packed with trees only 6 or 8 inches apart. “They'll self-thin themselves, only the fittest will survive.”

Jack pines need fire to reproduce. Their cones are sealed with wax. Fires melt that seal, opening up the cones and spreading seed all around.

A man examines a plant.
United States Forest Service Assistant Ranger Carl Skustad examines fireweed along the Powwow Trail inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near Trail Center Tuesday.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

There are also aspens trembling in the breeze, patches of blueberries, white pine and willow.

“This is what the system is supposed to do after fires, and even hot fires,” explained Patty Johnson, zone fire manager for the east side of the Superior National Forest.

“It's lush. And it's because the fire came through, which puts nitrogen back into the soils, opens up the sites for the seeds to really take off, and knocks back all of the other brush and competing vegetation,” she said.

And by regenerating the forest, wildfires also provide critical food and habitat for wildlife, like moose, whose populations have declined steeply in Minnesota over the past 20 years.

In about an hour of hiking we saw wolf scat, moose tracks, even a black bear ambled across the trail.

The fire also left behind a forest that’s more resistant to future fires.

The area that the Pagami Creek Fire burned hadn’t experienced wildfire in 150 years, said Tim Sexton, a fire modeling expert for the U.S. Forest Service who was a district ranger for the Superior National Forest during Pagami.

An analysis conducted after the fire found that the Forest Service had snuffed out about 50 small fires that started within the footprint of Pagami during the decades leading up to it. If some of those had been allowed to burn, they likely would have created a patchwork of different-aged forest that would likely have prevented such a giant fire from forming.

Now, where Pagami burned, there’s a 16-mile long buffer of young vegetation that's not anywhere near as flammable as what it would have been without that fire.

That’s critical, Sexton said, because at some point, “as the climate continues to worsen from the standpoint of conditions that favor wildfire, we will run into situations that foster these huge, rapidly spreading fires.”

But Pagami Creek also left a black scar on the landscape that’s still evident today.

It’s changed the experience for people paddling through stretches of the BWCA burned by the fire.

About 40 campsites were closed in the Boundary Waters for several years. Most have since reopened.

“We did see a decrease in camping at those sites for the first five or six years because it was pretty black,” said Skustad. “It was definitely a change for people. And there was not that large of trees around those campsites. But people have returned the past couple years, more than ever.”

It's not for everyone, but it's beautiful in a different way, said Bogardus-Szymaniak. It’s more vast, and dramatic.

"Ecologically speaking, we saw a renewal of a forest. And speaking ecologically, that's OK,” she said. “Is it what we as humans want to see and what we want to, you know, be around? Probably not, but it's just the renewal of a forest."

Pagami lessons

But the Pagami Creek Fire renewed more than just the forest. It also renewed focus on the importance of keeping people safe around fire — both the public, and those fighting it.

The Pagami Creek Fire moved so fast it overran campers who thought they were miles ahead of the fire.

Six wilderness rangers who were closing campsites on Insula Lake that morning were also trapped by the fire. They all deployed their fire shelters to survive, including two rangers who were forced to jump into the lake, where they were pummeled by 3- to 5-foot waves.

That experience led to something that Forest Service staff are referring to this year as the “Pagami protocol,” a requirement that all wilderness rangers have to work under someone with certain types of operation qualifications, and have to check in day and night, said Johnson, the zone fire manager.

A man scans the forest
Steve Malzacher of Rock Hill Fire Corporation scans the forest for hot spots after stamping one out in September 2011 north of Island River in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness while fighting the Pagami Creek Fire. Malzacher is from Duluth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

“I think it's great with people recognizing what happened to those rangers, and that we've made adjustments, and we're operating differently,” she said.

“Nobody meant to lose track of those rangers in that fire. But they did get lost track of in the midst of everything going on. And we also thought they would be safe on that big lake. So all these lessons learned, and we're putting measures into effect because of it,” said Johnson.

Another lesson learned, said Bogardus-Szymaniak, is that “a lot of people who are paddling out in the wilderness are not as swift as our wilderness rangers. And they may have a lot more stuff with them."

This year, forest officials implemented closures in the Boundary Waters sooner and over a larger area when there was a serious wildfire threat.

"I think we did not plan early enough or big enough in the past,” said Johnson. “And Pagami just showed us what fires could do under certain conditions."

It can also take a long time for rangers to reach campers when closures are put in place, she added.

"So we are putting on bigger closures because of that. And it's tough because we know it impacts those businesses. We know that it's not positive for them in terms of financially, and it's tough decisions," said Johnson.

Firefighter safety is also top of mind, even more so than 10 years ago.

"We don't insert firefighters into a fire unless there's at least two ways for them to get out," said Bogardus-Szymaniak.

That's why the Forest Service hasn't flown firefighters into all the fires that have started in the Boundary Waters this summer. They have to be confident that crews can escape if the fire blows up.

Managing wildfire in the wilderness has always been a precarious balancing act. Because fire, for the ecosystem, is a good thing, a natural process. But it can be deadly, too.

Johnson said the Forest Service has stepped up its messaging to people entering the Boundary Waters, to be aware that wildfire is a natural occurrence, and to be prepared.

“You’re entering a wilderness and you may encounter fire, and we may not have people to move you. And so you have to use your own judgment."