Fire Management in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness after the Pagami Creek Fire

Lake Alice campsite could be next in the Pagami Creek Wildfire

By September 18, 2011 the Pagami Creek Fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA), the United States’ most used designated Wilderness Area under the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act of 1978, had burned about 94,000 acres (147 square miles, 380 square kilometers). It had burned approximately 1/10th of the entire preserve, which sets aside 1 million acres of lakes connected by portage trails in a relatively undeveloped state.

Pagami Creek Fire History

According to InciWeb, the website used by fire management to communicate information to the public, the Pagami Creek fire started from a lightning strike on Thursday August 18th, 2011. As part of the management plan in the Boundary Waters, the U.S. Forest Service allows wildland fires to burn unless they pose a significant threat to public safety, the area outside of the wilderness or structures. The original half-acre fire was allowed to burn to approximately 130 acres before the Forest Service decided to intervene. Instead of attacking the fire directly, they decided to burn more of the forest using a technique known as a “burn out.” The fire incident report describe a “burn out” as a tool “which will remove available fuel between the fire and the BWCAW boundary. Weather conditions must be ideal in order to conduct this operation so it is difficult to predict an exact day for the ignition.” In order to protect the portage between Lake One and Lake Two, two of the most popular lakes in the Boundary Waters, the U.S. Forest Service placed a sprinkler system along the portage.

On September 5, the Forest Service used three helicopters to ignite the “burn out.” The intervention grew the fire to approximately 2,000 acres. In normal circumstances this might have kept the fire inside the BWCA, but the area had suffered a particularly dry fall and fire danger was high. Ironically, the Inciweb report for September 6 noted “Everyone is encouraged to remember that this area is particularly dry and to be careful with fire.” Additionally, unseasonal air temperatures and high winds were predicted. Jim Sanders, Superior National Forest supervisor, later claimed that the “burn out” prevented the fire from moving into populated areas outside of the Boundary Waters northwest of the fire, and the Forest Service claimed that their computer models proved that the “burn out” didn’t lead to the coming firestorm.* An anonymous local fire official believes that the “burn out” did contribute to the increased fire behavior. Over the next few days, the fire grew to approximately 10,000 acres.

Pagami Creek pyrocumulonimbus clouds
The storm front generated by the Pagami Creek fire rolls into Grand Marais, Minn.
On September 12th, air temperatures near 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29.4 C) and strong winds created a fire storm that could be seen from space. Officials described the fire as a plume-driven fire, that created its own weather, including a massive pyrocumulonimbus cloud, ash-filled rain, hail and lightning. The fire went from 10,000 acres to over 60,000 acres in mere hours while vaporizing everything in its path. Later that figure was revised upward to 100,000 acres. According to InciWeb, it “made an unprecedented 16-mile run to the east, reaching the edge of Polly Lake.” The Forest Service and fire experts used the words “unprecedented” and “never seen anything like it before in Minnesota.”* But, Minnesota has a history of fires that were “unprecedented” and “unusual.” For example, the Hinckley fire of 1894, which also occurred in September, burned 350,000 acres and came on so fast that it set bridges afire ahead of trains rushing away.

When the storm generated by the Pagami Creek Fire rushed over Grand Marais, it looked like the coming of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Smoke eventually reached Chicago, Ill. over 450 miles (724 km) away. The term plume-driven event was thrown around casually, but even the forest service spokesperson didn’t seem to know how to explain what was happening. An explanation comes from Forest fires: a reference handbook by Philip N. Omi:

Large fires that burn under the influence of a massive convection column are also called “plume dominated.” Generally, a billowing plume indicates simultaneous ignition of fuels covering a fairly large area. Well-formed convection columns develop under unstable atmospheric conditions, and they can dominate a fire’s behavior with updrafts and downdrafts (much like a thunder cell). A particularly dangerous situation arises when the plume collapses on account of gravity — the strong downdraft is capable of pushing a fire in any direction.

Lake Four in the Boundary Waters
The boreal forest casts reflections onto Lake Four. This area is now burnt and the beauty lost for the rest of most of my lifetime.
The fire management teams responded in what seemed like to locals an unorganized fashion, and it seemed like they were unable to get out information to the public quickly enough. Roads were closed, entry points into the wilderness were closed, canoeists were evacuated, houses just outside of the BWCA were evacuated, some rescuers were even caught within the fire storm and had to deploy their fire shelters in order to stay alive. Sawbill Outfitters and The Grade looked to be directly in the line of the fire. Sawbill Outfitters pumped 50,000 gallons of water via a forest fire sprinkler system onto their property. Friends of mine who were out of the country recruited me and two other friends to rush to their place and grab valuables. One of my friends went up the Sawbill Trail that was suppose to be open to The Grade only to find it closed in a different location than was reported to the public. An anonymous Forest Service worker told a friend that he wouldn’t be surprised if they needed to evac Tofte. It seemed like everyone was glued to the Grand Marais radio station, WTIP. Everyone was hoping for good news. One question on everyone’s mind was “Could this be the big one?”

Boundary Waters campiste
A typical campsite in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area - this is why canoeists journey from all over the world to visit Minnesota.
On July 4, 1999 a derecho that lasted 22 hours and traveled 1,300 miles ripped through the Boundary Waters. Over 477,000 acres of wilderness or approximately 40% of the BWCA were affected. It toppled trees, snapped them in half, pulled 100-foot, towering white pines out of the ground. In some areas, almost every tree was leveled with the ground. Since then the Forest Service has conducted several controlled burns to remove the dead trees and create fire breaks, and several forest fires, including the 75,000 acres Ham Lake Fire which burnt part of the wilderness and destroyed 30 structures outside of the wilderness, have reduced the volume of the downed trees, but much of the fuel (dead, down and dry trees) remains. A northward progression of the fire would it into the blowdown area and could create the “big one.”

moose in the Boundary Waters
A moose in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
After the plume-driven fire storm, a Type 1 Incident Management Team, one of 16 highly-trained national teams, was brought in to manage the fire, a Type 2 Incident Management Team, one of 35 national teams, was assigned Cook County, to the east of most of the fire, and the fire fighting crew grew to over 500 people. Much to the relief of locals and BWCA lovers, it seemed like someone who knew how to handle the situation showed up and took control. It took several days before they banned fires in the Superior National Forest and the Boundary Waters. Pictures started to emerge from the burnt areas. It looked like complete devastation. It snowed. People started questioning the Forest Service’s decision to let the fire burn and the Forest Service replied by defending their decision. Minnesota Governor Dayton, U.S. Senator Franken, U.S. Senator Klobuchar and U.S. Representative Cravaack visited. Biologists announced that forest fires are good for moose. Anger over U.S. Forest Service fire policies flared. Elsewhere, several canoeists fought a forest fireon their own until rescuers arrived and put out the blaze. Over the next few days, despite strong winds, dry air and warm temperatures, the fire only crept along, and fire containment increased to 11%. It seemed like luck was on our side.

On September 18, InciWeb reported, “Aerial water scoopers dropped slightly more than 450,000 gallons of water on the fire yesterday, focusing on the northern and eastern perimeter.” The northern and eastern perimeters were nearer to the blowndown than other portions of the fire. Fox9 reported that so far $2.5 million was spent fighting the blaze. Ely businesses noticed a temporary increase in business from the 600 firefighters and equipment, but worried about their future. On Sunday, it rained all day and the fire calmed down. With rain in the forecast, the forest service stated that they expected limited to no growth over the next 5 to 6 days. More newspaper articles talked about the benefits of fire. Unfortunately, the articles didn’t talk about how invasive whitetail deer eat the white pine saplings, which makes it difficult for white pine to naturally repopulate.

By Wednesday, September 21, the fire reached 30% containment and according to InciWeb, the cold, wet weather caused the fire to lay down and just “creep and smolder.” Paul Danicic, Executive Director; Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness took the argument that “you shouldn’t criticize the policy while the soldiers fight the war” and applied it to the fire. Some reporters started to put a rosy spin on the fire: Oufitters say it’s business as usual in Boundary Waters area. More accurate GPS mapping changed the reported size of the fire down to a total of 93,669 acres. 9,274 acres were outside the wilderness and the rest were inside. Total personnel grew to about 800 people, and officials considered using explosives within the Boundary Waters to clear a fire line on the northern perimeter of the fire.

Boundary Waters Fires chartThe Boundary Waters has a history of fires and fires consuming over 100,000 acres aren’t that rare. Historic data from sampling tree cores gives an accurate view of forest fires back to the 1700s. Based on that data, historically the Boundary Waters experiences a 100,000 acre fire every half-century. During the heavy logging years from 1850 to 1899 that changed and over 815,000 acres were burned; some of that burning is contributed to extreme drought conditions. If fire continues at the current pace, this half-century will exceed the number of acres burned from 1850 to 1899.

In the late 1800s and all of the 1900s, logging and the fire suppression efforts changed the natural progression of forest fires. Whereas in the past, larger fires varied the age of the forest and created a “patch turnover” of the forest, in the 1900s less than 80,000 acres burned. The combination of logging slash in the areas of the BWCA that were logged and dead trees in the forest understories built up high fuel loads. “These unnaturally high fuel loads increase the likelihood of super hot fires that scorch the thin topsoil of the boundary waters area, killing organic matter and the seeds of trees such as jack pine, black spruce, and red pine, which normally reestablish themselves rapidly after fires.”* The lack of pines and spruce regeneration in the 2007 Ham Lake fire area, which burned through some of the blowdown near the end of the Gunflint Trail, illustrates the problem.

Burned husks of trees at sunset in the Ham Lake Fire area.
Burned husks of trees at sunset in the Ham Lake Fire area. Taken three years after the fire.
The fire suppression efforts of the 1800s and 1900s, the logging slash and the dead and down trees from the July 4, 1999 blowdown event have left the forest with an unnaturally high load of fuel — the natural forest conditions of the 1700s and early 1800s no longer exist. Choosing to let a fire burn in the Boundary Waters is a complex choice, because if it burns too hot, the forest might not come back the way it did in the past. When high fuel loads combine with climate change — the scientists predict that the BWCA will eventually turn to oak savanna — it creates a scary prospect that the Boundary Waters may change sooner rather than later. Luckily, the Pagami Creek fire burned through a healthy section of the forest, so it should come back naturally.

As the Pagami Creek Fire calmed down due to cold, wet weather, Forest Service officials had more time to respond to criticism. In light of what happened, they said that they’d do things differently, but it still probably wouldn’t change the policy of allowing fires to burn within the Boundary Waters. By September 28, the fire fighting effort had cost over $11 million dollars and was only 61% contained. At one point, almost 1,000 fire fighters were working on the effort to stop the fire from growing.

On Monday, October 3, the Type 1 management team turned over control to a Type 2 management team. The fire was 71% contained. To help with the containment the Forest Service used explosives within the wilderness to blast more than a mile of fire line. Although close to half the number of fire fighters at the maximum count remained significant resources remained on the ground. The resources included 530 personnel, 10 hotshot (Type 1) crews, 2 Type 2 crews, 3 engines, 4 dozers, 1 water tenders, 3 camp crews and other personnel. The following air resources were available: two Type 1 helicopters, three Type 3 helicopters, and three Beaver aircraft on floats. Anytime the fire flared up on the line, the air support quickly dosed it.

By the 22nd of October, the Forest Service stopped posting updates on InciWeb. The total cost of the fire was over $22.3 million. Follow up investigative reporting found that the Forest Service was way off on its fire predictions, which put people’s lives in jeopardy and caused the largest wildfire in Minnesota since 1918.

My Thoughts About Fire Management in the Boundary Waters

canoeing into the burnt Boundary Waters
Canoeing into the Ham Lake Fire area three years after the fire.
Everyone likes to backseat drive, and I’m no different. I have a few thoughts about fire management in the Boundary Waters. Mainly: It needs to be different. In the Boundary Waters, we face several factors that must be juggled differently than they are in other Wilderness Areas:

  1. It’s the most used Wilderness Area in the nation because of the scenic beauty. Campsites and the relatively untouched beauty of the area draw people from around the world. Over a quarter of a million people visit the wilderness each year.
  2. It provides significant income to the surrounding communities, such as Grand Marais and Ely.
  3. Fire keeps the forest healthy and creates habitat for creatures that are currently struggling due to climate change. We need fire.
  4. Big fires can ruin (1) and (2).

In my opinion, the Forest Service needs to manage the fires in such a way that achieves forest restoration without harming tourism. It seemed like the Forest Service was trying to achieve that when they set fires to protect Lake One and Lake Two from the Pagami Creek lightning strike. Unfortunately, they attempted the prescribed burns during conditions that weren’t perfect and we suffered the consequences of their actions when their burns burst out of control. So, what went wrong? Who knows. I’m sure we’ll find out after the fire is out, but normally fire fighters carry out prescribed burns after lots of planning and weeks of monitoring the weather. They preform the burns under perfect conditions that mitigate the risk of one going out of control. In the past, the Forest Service has safely carried out many prescribed burns in the BWCA under the right conditions. In the Pagami Creek fire, they didn’t have the right conditions.

So what to do? My gut tells me that the Forest Service should put out natural fires, especially when fire conditions are high, and then later carry out prescribed burns when the conditions are right. They should use a controlled method that would mimic the natural progression of smaller fires while protecting the shoreline, portages, trails and campsites.

The main objection I can see people having is that because this is a designated wilderness area under U.S. law, it ought to be allowed to be wilderness and whatever wildernessy, such as forest fires, happens there happens there. That’s a nice thought, but the Wilderness Act of 1964 states its purpose as:

In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States and its possessions, leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness. For this purpose there is hereby established a National Wilderness Preservation System to be composed of federally owned areas designated by Congress as “wilderness areas”, and these shall be administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use as wilderness, and so as to provide for the protection of these areas, the preservation of their wilderness character, and for the gathering and dissemination of information regarding their use and enjoyment as wilderness; and no Federal lands shall be designated as “wilderness areas” except as provided for in this Act or by a subsequent Act.

kek lake in the BWCA
The rugged, untouched terrain of the Boundary Waters. Only a canoe can get you here.
One of the Wilderness Act’s main purposes is the preservation of the area for the enjoyment of the American people. It’s to be managed by the administration to achieve this goal. Because it is to be managed, it’s perfectly acceptable under law to put out natural fires in favor of prescribed burns done under the right conditions. Secondly, the only part of the Wilderness Act that says anything about fire is when it waves restriction for motorized vehicles when fighting fires. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act of 1978 doesn’t contain the word “fire” in its text. So, I guess the debate is about what a wilderness character is and what enjoyment is. Personally, I don’t enjoy a burnt area as much as an untouched area (given: probably no intrinsic difference — eye of the beholder nonsense, etc.). Camping in the burnt areas sucks. It’s interesting to see burnt areas now and then, but when a burnt area from one fire covers 1/10th of the BWCA we have a problem. Especially, when that area now covers the most popular parts of the BWCA, and, especially, when it could have been prevented in favor of waiting for better conditions.

When you read the great wilderness philosophers, such as Leopold, Muir, Olson, the wilderness character that they describe isn’t the devastation of a fire, but it is the natural preserved beauty of an untouched forest. Here’s how Boundary Waters hero Sigurd F. Olson described his vision of the expansive, now lost American wilderness in Reflections from the North Country:

…and pictured the land as it was at the time of discovery: beautiful, verdant, and untouched. Whales were spouting off Nantucket, the timber stood tall and dark along coastal flats. There were salmon and shad in rivers running clean and full to the sea.

We passed high over the blue misty ridges of the Appalachians, which pinned the first colonists to their beachheads. Deer and elk were everywhere then and clouds of wildfowl darkened the sky. We flew across the checkerboard pattern of farms over the valley of the Ohio, but all I saw was the old primeval forest of green extending unbroken to the Mississippi.

Beyond the great river were endless grassy plains where millions of buffalo roamed. Rising foothills appeared, then the snow-covered peaks of the Rockies, with the board expanse of the painted deserts beyond, and finally the ramparts of the coastal Sierras, the dark boarder of the sequoias, and the crashing of white surf of the blue Pacific.

Now all of that was changed…

Wilderness preservation under law doesn’t need to mean that we let fires burn out-of-control just because that’s what would have happened if humans weren’t here — doing so means that we risk a larger fire such as the Pagami Creek Fire — It means that we preserve the best of wilderness, the beauty invoked by our great wilderness philosophers, for the enjoyment of the American people in a way that keeps the environment healthy. Something like this costs money but so does fighting out-of-control wildfires, and many of our current politicians including Cravaack, who represents the area, lack the vision and foresight to spend money for the preservation of American wilderness as opposed to spending in reaction to an emergency.

The wilderness defined Americans as a people; it was that untouched wilderness that drove the expansion of the country, created a wealth of American dreams and defined American rugged individualism. Without the original wilderness, Americans wouldn’t define freedom the way we do. So little of wilderness is left that it needs to be kept in a state that preserves the natural beauty. In the BWCA, that means NOT letting fires consume it.

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  • […] a forest’s life, that much is clear. But I think Bryan Hansel really hits it on the head with this post: In the Boundary Waters, we face several factors that must be juggled differently than they are in […]

  • I was in the BWCA from Sept 8-14, on Disappointment, so saw from rather close the massive plume generated by the fire. Truly it was both awful and awesome.
    I would take mild issue with the defense of your beginning statement of facts with the quotation from the Wilderness Act of 1964. As much as I agree with the general spirit of the Act – to wit: setting aside this utterly beautiful tract of land for the stated reasons – I think the supposition that ‘beauty’ in this case remains forever is flawed. You’ve already stated earlier that the area has periodically incurred forest fires, and thus suffers ‘beauty setbacks’. We can quibble with the Forest Service’s policies until the cows come home, but the real fault lies somewhere close to the expectation (unreasonable in my view) that the woods will always be pristine for us when we arrive. How shallow; better, I think, to make it clear from the start, to us all, that part of the BWCA experience may encompass the witnessing of a regrowing forest – which is itself a marvel.
    Now, coming down from such lofty perch, I must say how affected I was by the sight of the smoke and ash boiling up. The thought of allowing such a fire to burn unchecked is sobering in the least.
    Overall, however, I would say we, the public, could use a bit better education as to the true extent of what may be a wilderness experience.
    Thanks for your thoughtful writing.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think you make great points about the management of any old wilderness area — I’m hard pressed to disagree with them. My thoughts are based on the belief that the BWCA is different and therefore requires a different management approach. (And maybe it’s because I’m sick of having ash from recent fires landing in my backyard.)

      Because the BWCA is different, it needs a different fire management plan. I think that an aggressively managed controlled burn plan combined with fire suppression during risky times can achieve an experience that lets visitors witness regrowth without sacrificing the overall beauty that the area is known for. Currently, we have an unhealthy forest and we’re on unnatural and unhealthy pace of acreage burned over a 50-year period while our changing climate is make the area warmer and more prone to wildfires. Additionally, fires created by this unnatural state may destroy seed stock and the forest might change into something completely different, i.e. the birch and aspen dominated Ham Lake Fire area with little white pine or spruce regrowth. I’ve already seen oak intrusion in other areas.

      The Forest Service already manages the BWCA in a more park-like fashion with designated campsites, privies, etc. because of the volume of visitors. That fact alone makes the BWCA different than other Wilderness Areas.

      I guess it comes down to if you believe that the BWCA is different than any old Wilderness Area — not that there are enough in the country. Do we have a wilderness experience in the BWCA or do we have a Boundary Waters experience there? I’d argue that we have a Boundary Waters experience and that experience is worth fighting for.

  • I’d be most interested to hear from folks who’ve visited the BWCA from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York (saw all those plates in the parking lot this year) and others – how they’d differentiate between a wilderness experience in the BWCA and a Boundary Waters experience there. How would you explain the difference?
    Clearly your statement is true, that the BWCA is run under a more park-like regimen than a true wilderness. Does that, however, dictate against changing from a policy which I maintain is informed considerably by good ole Manifest Destiny – e.g. What’s there is our’s to tame for our best use (and don’t misinterpret this; much that I enjoy and consider good about our country has been achieved under that principle). I do think, though, that we have information plenty enough about the faux pas we’ve committed in the process of working to that principle, to be able to understand that we do better when we consider ourselves part of nature’s processes rather than master of them.
    That said (and stepping outside the belljar) I do like your idea of closer attention to the forests so that fires of such devastation become less likely.

    • I think there are a number of differences between a Boundary Waters experience and a wilderness experience. A few that stand out the most are the park-like management, ease of access, relative safety, huge outfitter support for visitors, largest number of visitors to any Wilderness Area, motorized access allowed, private buildings and property surround it, and established campsites with privies.

      I think describing the policy as Manifest Destiny is a bit misapplied as Manifest Destiny was about expansion. There’s a well documented and understood history of Native Americans in the Midwest — and humanity in general — using fire to modify the environments that they lived in. Certainly, their actions weren’t informed by a belief in a deity-given right to expand across North America. Instead I’d suggest that humanity isn’t apart from nature, and the BWCA isn’t apart from humanity. We’re there, we’ve modified it, we suppressed and continue to suppress fires there, and because of our actions it isn’t in a natural state nor will it be as long as we determine when and where to put out a fire or let it burn (we’re already doing that). What I’ve suggested accepts those facts and attempts to manage the resource in such a way to make it as natural as possible within the confines of its reality.

      I’ll ask you: is using explosives to cut a fire line within the wilderness area to make sure the fire doesn’t head into the blowdown and then hit the structures on the Gunflint Trail natural? Is stopping a fire at the Gunflint Trail natural when a natural fire would just sweep across into the eastern section or north across the border into Canada (and into the tangle of international treaties, laws and what not)? The answer, of course, is no, because the reality is that we manage the fires already and we will continue to do so.

  • Sounds to me as if we’re in pretty close agreement as to overall management of this resource. I do believe the USFS pursued a course of action based at least in part on expectations of a misinformed public; this is borne out by huge fires in other ‘wilderness-style’ parks that are subject to relatively heavy traffic – and the realization of how they came about. I also believe that a key part of any program to maintain the BWCA forests in a healthy state while minimizing damage to the the tourism industry should include better informing the public of what constitutes (and goes on in) a in a well-cared-for wilderness, i.e. that sensible management of the area may mean periodic ‘sucky’ views. I also think that people so informed will largely overlook that ugliness; people certainly haven’t avoided traversing the blowdown area just because it’s butt-ugly.
    So, how to get the USFS involved in this discusssion? Clearly there are many who are passionate about how to best maintain the BWCA. Do you have any sense as to how the Forestry Service receives and acts on public input in this neck of the woods?
    Great to read your thoughts and clarifications.

    • You can write to the Superior National Forest using their contact form or call them at (218) 626-4300. It sounds like Rep. Craavak might be open to pushing for change, and Sen. Al Franken is quoted as saying that Pagami Creek may not only be the exception to the rule by escaping the BWCAW but also may be the “exception that changes the rule” of allowing some BWCAW fires to burn. So, writing him about this issue is a good idea.

      As far as the Forest Service in Grand Marais, I’ve always had great experiences with them. They’re responsive and friendly and helpful — and I’m not just saying that because I have friends who work there.

  • […] about leaving the BWCA. For example, on our trip, we went into Ely for three days to meet with Pagami Creek Forest Fire fighters, do the Wilderness Classroom computer work, hang out with friends and check out the town. We also […]

  • […] BWCA Campsite and Portages Map: This has all the portages and campsites as of 2009. This will change a bit especially after the Pagami Creek Fire. […]

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