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Autumn 2011

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Fire and BWCA: A Place Apart Follow-up


Since Steve Bailey completed his American Forests story, “A Place Apart,” on Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) and Superior National Forest, a massive fire broke out within these renowned woods. In this web exclusive, we take a look at where the fire erupted and how it has impacted the region.

On August 18, 2011, a lightning strike ignited a fire 13 miles east of Ely, Minnesota, in Superior National Forest. Dubbed the Pagami Creek Fire, the blaze raged for months, engulfing more than 90,000 acres. As of the most recent update on October 22, the fire still smoldered with 93 percent of it contained. Firefighting personnel have been released, but the site remains under aerial surveillance. The hope is that winter weather will eventually extinguish the remaining flames.

A large cumulus cloud settled over the Pagami Creek fire in Minnesota, 14 miles east of the city of Ely. Pyrocumulonimbus plumes are wildfire-related clouds with great similarities to thunderstorms and certain volcanic eruptions. NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard the Terra satellite captured the plume on September 12, 2011 at 17:05 UTC (11:05 a.m. MDT). Credit: NASA/GSFC/Jeff Schmaltz/MODIS Land Rapid Response Team

While the Pagami Creek Fire is the largest Minnesota fire in acreage since 1931, it thankfully spared the populated areas of BWCA and Superior, unlike the smaller, but devastating 2007 Ham Lake Fire that destroyed nearly 150 buildings during its rampage. The massive Pagami blaze’s effects were felt 600 miles away in Chicago with reports of burning eyes and breathing problems. It sliced through 10 percent of BWCA, including two of its most popular entry points, Lake One and Isabella Lake, forcing closures and evacuations. As of October 18, seven travel zones and nine entry points to BWCA remained closed. Officials, though, are optimistic about the woods’ chance of recovery.

As reported in The Ely Echo, Kawishiwi District Ranger Mark Van Every says that wildlife is already returning to the area and that many of the campsites are in good shape around popular Lakes One, Two and Three. Only 114 of BWCA’s 2,100 campsites were impacted by the fire, and work has already begun to rehabilitate affected campsites.

Minnesota Public Radio’s Dan Kraker reports that on a recent trip through the burned area, “the Boundary Waters is largely untouched, lush and wild.” But, there are blackened areas, especially along Lake Three and the heavily damaged area between Lake Four and Insula Lake. Officials expect many of these areas to regrow naturally, but will keep an eye on the areas that burned hottest, like Insula Lake, to ensure that the forest is recovering.

Beyond the environmental cost of the Pagami Creek Fire, it did some heavy fiscal damage. More than $22 million was spent to contain the blaze and protect BWCA and its residents. At its peak, more than 400 fire personnel were engaged to combat the blaze. And, of course, local residents and business owners are concerned about how this fire will affect tourism in the area. With only a dozen of the affected campsites expected to remain closed next spring, fingers are crossed that the area experiences its normal, brisk recreation tourism next year.

As exhibited, firefighting and fire prevention costs money. In an op-ed for The Hill, our CEO Scott Steen outlines our recommendations of the congressional funding required to prevent, combat and control fire.

2011 has been a devastating year across the country for wildfires. For more information on the destruction, fire policy history and how we should manage and prevent fires in the future, check out “A Burning Need for Wildfire Prevention.”

Wildfire is a major priority for American Forests. Find out more about our work and how you can support efforts to prevent future catastrophic fires.

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