BWCA Wildfire on My Mind

BWCA Wildfire on My Mind

Wild fires have dominated news on the west coast this summer.  Thankfully, it has been a “good” year for fires in the BWCA. Yet, I have been thinking about where I stand on wilderness fire management.

USFS Manages Boundary Waters Fires

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) manages wilderness areas like the Boundary Waters. Generally, the USFS lets fires burn in wilderness areas.  (Particularly for fires started from natural causes like lightning.)

And, fires which do not threaten property or people.  The USFS also uses controlled burn operations to contain fires as they burn naturally.

The Pagami Creek Fire

The August 2011 Pagami Creek fire is a good example to think about.  Lightning started the Pagami Creek fire. It smoldered for several days in a small ¼ acre bog area.  The fire was monitored.  However, the fire began to grow. Thus, a burnout operation was initiated to contain the fire.  Unfortunately, a small finger of the fire escaped the containment area. The fire grew to 4,500 acres. Within 4 days, the fire grew to almost 100,000 acres.  Conditions that contributed to this extremely rapid growth were:

  • Extremely high, shifting winds
  • Humidity as low as 18% (forecast was 30%)
  • Extreme dry conditions (forecast was for 2 inches of rain that never occurred)
  • Above average temperatures

When the fire was finally contained, and extinguished, 114 BWCA campsites, out of about 2,100, had been affected in some fashion.  The fire burned so hot that bedrock was exposed.  The firefighting effort involved over 120 firefighters and multiple aircraft. The cost was over $22 million.

For the last 7 years, the Pagami Creek fire response has been documented and debated.  Whether the initial response to let the fire burn in the small bog area was prudent during one of the driest summers in 140 years is a more complex question than it appears.

Difficult and Complex Questions About Wildfires

First of all, by extinguishing fires in wilderness areas, we violate the initial pretense of a wilderness area, which is to let nature take its course.  Remember, action is taken only when a fire begins to spread, and threaten property and lives.  Nonetheless, it was a very dry year It can be argued that the risk of the fire spreading outweighed the idea of leaving the wilderness to itself.

Yet, one of the reasons the Pagami Creek fire would explode the way it did was due to a 100 years of fire suppression in the area.  Consequently, no large-scale fire had impacted the area in a 100 years.  The fuel on the ground was vast and ready and ready to burn.  And it did.  Had we not suppressed fires in earlier years, it is likely that the Pagami Creek fire would have been much less significant.

Benefits of Wildfires in the Boundary Waters

Also, there are long-term benefits of the fire.  Moose populations are up in the area. New growth is everywhere, including blueberries on which many animals depend.  Disease is less threatening than in overgrown forests.  And we can watch and learn each year as the forest regenerates itself.

In reality, wildfire management in wilderness areas is complex.  The idea of fire suppression in every case is shortsighted.  But, we need to be flexible in our policies. I think letting the forest burn when prudent is good.  However, taking quick decisive action is needed to extinguish a fire action when conditions are ripe for a fire to explode.  I do believe that the USFS is taking lessons from the Pagami Creek fire to heart.  The silver lining of such a devastating fire may be a healthier BWCA in the future.

To read more on the Pagami Creek fire, check out these links.

Paddling through the BWCAW’s Pagami Creek Fire zone

Paddle On. Be Free.