From its start one year ago, Greenwood Fire changed landscape of northeast Minnesota

The aftermath of a wildfire in northern Minnesota
Areas burned by the Greenwood Fire -- which was first spotted near Greenwood Lake north of Two Harbors on Aug. 15, 2021 -- are seen one month after the fire passed through.
Photo by Michael Furtman

Picture this: A lightning bolt reaches down to the ground, hits a tree and starts a fire.

Now hold that thought — until Thanksgiving.

That's about what happened last August, when a storm touched off the Greenwood Fire, named for nearby Greenwood Lake, about 20 miles northwest of Silver Bay. Monday marks the first anniversary of when the fire was first spotted.

It was the start of a battle that went on into the fall and lingered into winter.

"I believe end of September, the final fire acre size was 26,797 acres," recalled Chase Marshall, fire management officer for the Chippewa and Superior National Forests. "The fire was declared out some time in December."

The aftermath of a wildfire in northern Minnesota
This boat on a trailer parked along the shore of North McDougal Lake, west of Isabella, Minn., was melted by the Greenwood Fire that was first spotted on Aug. 15, 2021, and continued burning for weeks.
Photo by Michael Furtman

It wasn't the biggest fire in recent history in northern Minnesota. The Pagami Creek Fire in 2011 was nearly four times bigger and scorched a huge swath of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — leaving scars still visible on the landscape. Several close calls for firefighters during that fire showed how dangerous wildland fire could be in Minnesota.

The Greenwood Fire didn't get into the wilderness proper. But it may be a sign of the times in the region — following, like the Pagami Creek Fire, a hot June and a summer drought in northern Minnesota, potential effects of climate change in the state. Both fires also showed explosive early growth that caught some people by surprise.

All told, the Greenwood Fire destroyed more than a dozen homes and cabins, and dozens of other outbuildings, in the months it burned before winter finally put it out. Fortunately, no one died and no serious injuries were reported, even though the fire doubled in size to more than 9,000 acres in a single day in late August — prompting evacuations around more than a half dozen lakes south of the Boundary Waters.

Michael Furtman and his wife, Mary Jo, of Duluth, were ordered away from their cabin on Middle McDougal Lake for six weeks.

"The sheriff came and said, 'You've got 30 minutes. Grab what you can,'" Michael Furtman said.

When they got back, their cabin and two acres of trees were the only things not blackened by fire for miles around, by some stroke of luck, Furtman said. Others weren't so fortunate.

"There is barely a green tree visible from our property. If you drive through there, it looks like a lunar landscape. A lot of the area burned right down to mineral soil. Right down to boulders and gravel," he said.

A section of forest burned by the Greenwood Fire
A section of forest burned by the Greenwood Fire, as seen from the air west of Isabella, Minn., on Sept. 20, 2021.
Superior National Forest | Minnesota Incident Command System

Furtman said many of his neighbors are debating whether to rebuild at all — expecting it will be decades before much grows back, let alone the land returning to the pristine forests that used to border the Boundary Waters not far from State Highway 1.

And the fire touched even where it didn't burn.

The Greenwood Fire was one of a handful of fires in the area — including some within the BWCA as well as huge fires in Ontario, just north of the U.S. border. The combined risk from all those fires prompted federal officials to close the entire Boundary Waters Canoe Area to visitors for the first time since 1976.

It was closed for about two weeks.

Wildland firefighters construct a fire line
Wildland firefighters construct a fire line to help contain the Greenwood Fire west of Isabella, Minn., in September 2021.
Superior National Forest

Jason Zabokrtsky owns Ely Outfitting Company in Ely.

"Last year, at this time, we had 25 percent of the trips that we had booked actually cancel — and most all of that was was due to fire-related closures and the BWCA closure," he said.

Zabokrtsky said the losses hurt, but in the end he couldn't really take issue with taking a cautious approach to fires and keeping people safe.

"It was just tinder dry out in the woods last summer," he said.

Down the road, Ginny Nelson at Spirit of the Wilderness outfitters in Ely said the suddenness of the closures was hard to handle; people literally on their way to northern Minnesota had to be turned back. Campfire bans made for a run on cooking stoves, and longer seasons in recent years meant there was a lot of business still to lose when the wilderness closed.

Although she did say some of the outfitting went on — just in a different way.

"So we were getting calls from the Forest Service saying, 'Hey, can you pack meals for like 20 people for three days starting tomorrow?'" she recalled. "And then what they did, is the Forest Service would take a helicopter and they would sling those packs into the Forest Service people in different places."

At its peak there were about 750 of those people out fighting the Greenwood Fire, Forest Service officials said. That's nearly the size of the Minneapolis and St. Paul fire departments combined.

It took nearly three months and more than $21 million to get the fire under control and finally extinguish it.

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