Debating Pagami Creek

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Being a city slicker far away from the BWCA fire, it’s hard for me to know what the overwhelming sentiment is about the way firefighting efforts there are being handled. Clearly there are two schools of thought on it as evidenced by some of the heartfelt reaction we’re getting to our coverage.

Yesterday, MPR’s Cathy Wurzer talked about the ecology of the fire with Lee Frelich of the University of Minnesota, who noted that there’s not even 20/20 hindsight on this issue:

But a reader from Ely – I don’t have permission to use her name, so I won’t until I do – responds:


I want to know how many of our struggling moose population died in that fire, in prime moose country. (The moose-hunting season needs to stop, in order to preserve the bloodlines of healthy animals that have genetically begun to cope). How many thousands of other animals unable to escape the fire perished in agony, and what will that do to their populations?

White pine “virtually exterminated” on the Gunflint after the Ham Lake fire – that’s what happens now when fire burns with such unnatural intensity, burning everything including the big pine because of all the fuel. At one time fires burned under the big trees and kept the forest floor relatively clear – before indiscriminate logging – when it was pine and woodland caribou country. White and Norway pine are more important than to deserve such a blasé attitude – “unfortunately” is an understatement. What’s coming back on the Gunflint is basically a forest obliterated. So will it be after the Pagami Creek fire.

Because of what was done in the name of progress we only have remnants of a forested lake country that slowly evolved over hundreds of years. We unnaturally changed that evolution in one century. Yet we have such a ‘disconnect’ that we believe we are now letting nature take its course as it always has with fire – never recognizing that we completely changed that course in one fell swoop.

One tenth of the Boundary Waters gone is not a “mosaic” forest – mosaics are many small pieces – not ten giant ones. Nine more fires like this one (less because of the Gunflint fires) and the BWCAW will be devastated for generations. We must speak up now and say this is a forest that needs a unique kind of fire fighting mentality – not just let it burn – but rather protect the diversity of the BWCAW by putting fires out when appropriate. Don’t gamble again on not having strong winds with the fire danger at high. Get back to a Forest Service that is in the field every day, not monitoring the forest from behind a desk.

Bill Hansen, who owns Sawbill Outfitters in the BWCA, addresses the firefighting efforts on Boreal Access:


I know that they will receive criticism about their management of the Pagami Lake fire, but I feel like that criticism is somewhat unfair. For more that 30 years we have all understood that fire is a normal part of the ecosystem here in the northern forest region. Historically, every acre of this forest burned at least once every 70 years. After European settlement and the establishment of the timber industry, the Forest Service was charged with aggressively extinguishing every wild fire, no matter what the cause. The forest managers got pretty good at fire suppression over the years. Over time, scientists came to realize that the policy of suppressing all fires was just setting the stage for disastrous, destructive fires, which since 1988 have been referred to as “Yellowstone” type fires. Now there is no longer any doubt that fire must be allowed on the landscape, or the forest as we know it will eventually cease to exist. Over the last 20 years or so, forest managers have developed a much smarter, nuanced approach to how they manage fire. They have been remarkably successful with this new approach and have made a lot of progress, especially in the wilderness, toward their goal of maintaining a healthy forest eco-system. That said, fire management often hinges on accurately predicting the weather, which carries an inherent risk. I think the Forest Service does a remarkable job with fire, but they are only human and nature will occasionally humble any human, no matter how skilled. I would urge the critics to look at the big picture, learn as much as possible about fire policy, and remember that hindsight is 20-20 and it’s much easier to judge the future once it has passed. Since I had my first conversation with legendary fire ecologist Bud Hinsleman, I’ve known that wildfire in this part of the world isn’t a matter of “if”, it’s just a matter of “when.”

The fire in the BWCA may burn for weeks. It will be long put out before there’s any agreement on how.

Here’s the latest informatiion.

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  • Angie

    I really really want to agree with your unidentified woman but the essence of her story is predicated on the fire as having “unnatural intensity”. Isn’t all the fuel from the very “natural” blowdown about a decade ago? This unnatural intensity is exactly what they predicted would happen at the time and now it is coming to fruition. Why is she, or anyone, surprised?

  • Bob from Grand Rapids

    In regards to the unidentified lady’s comment about this fire not burning in a mosaic. This fire has created a mosaic of soon to be optimal moose habitat. A fire rarely burns everything within its “perimeter”. There are patches of varying acreages and habitats that were unburned, and areas of burn with different severities of burn. All of this creates different forest regeneration from pioneer species to establishing a forest floor conducive to new white pine seeding. Prime moose habitat is not mature forest by any means. Look to Canada where enormous tracts of timber are regenerated (through timber harvesting) creating optimal moose habitat. The Little Indian Souix fire up the Echo Trail had less than 1 moose per square mile before the fire, and shortly after the fire it harbored 2.5 moose per square mile. This is due to the amount of food available to them. Moose thrive in young forests and decline in numbers in mature forests. That is what’s called the habitats “carrying capacity”. Fire suppression is not only done to protect resources, it is also to protect human developement and communities. Logging is not the cause of this fire. Blame the spruce budworm for killing so much balsam fir in that area. After all it is a boreal forest. High fire danger is normal, and many of large fires in Minnesota have come in the fall similar to how this is playing out. I am one of many who sees this “castastophe” as a blessing for the moose. Hopefully the hardworking firefighters come out of the BWCA unscathed, and hopefully those living in the area are safe. I am one who believes let a wilderness be a wilderness. The more man tries to intervene the less natural a wilderness becomes. A wilderness is Mother Nature’s mural and not ours.

  • cama

    Bob,

    “In early spring of 1971, the Little Sioux Fire in the LaCroix District, Superior National Forest, burned 15,000 acres, including a mature red pine-white pine stand. The study site is in a portion of the burned area containing only red pine… All of the parent red and white pine stand on the study site was killed by intense fire. A portion of the nearby old pine survived within seeding distance. The years immediately after fire were poor seed years, however, and no seedlings became established Even if seed had been available, the ash seedbed and dense growth of herbs and low shrubs would have hampered red pine establishment during these early postfire years…

    Modern influences on succession, even in remote areas, tend to eliminate rather than perpetuate the longer lived red pine and white pine following natural disturbances. These species cannot be restored by natural means to the position they represented in the forests of the past. If their perpetuation is desired, knowledge of their silvical requirements must be applied to current conditions. Because of the interest the public and conservation groups have taken in management policy, the ultimate quality of the naturally produced forest should be made clear to those participating in management decisions. A choice must be made between (1) establishing, through man’s efforts, forests resembling the primeval stand or (2) by natural means, permitting the development of a forest in which other species predominate. It is possible to opt for each of these choices in different parts of the area.” (Clifford E’ Ahlgren, Regeneration of red pine and white pine following wildfire and logging in northeastern Minnesota).