The wildfire quandary: Fight or flight?

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The big — and getting bigger — wildfire in the Boundary Waters is sure to ignite an old debate: When should the Forest Service just let it burn?

Let’s hit rewind and check the excellent Duluth Pack Blog, and its August 31 entry, when the fire was still in its infancy:


The Forest Service strategy is to let this fire burn as long as it is not threatening BWCAW campsites, portages, or private properties to the north. Controlled burn strategies are common when fires are started naturally and don’t pose risk to life or property. As this fire burns it is removing or reducing much of the fuel that is lying on the ground; by eliminating that now, future fires won’t have fuel to burn.

Today, Eric Thompson of Green Bay — an MPRNews.org reader — sent us this e-mail:


I was hiking the Pow-Wow Trail from 09-02-2011 to 09-05-2011. I was four miles from the fire. This fire started on 08-18-2011 by lightning and the US Forestry Service made the decision to let it burn. They say it’s good for the wilderness to clean out all the downed wood. Day 1 it was 18 acres, day 3 it was 240 acres. When I started hiking on 09-02 it was over 1000 acres. Now its over 60,000. The USFS needs to jump on top of these fires before letting them grow out of control. Then they whine about the damage they cause when they are to blame for letting it grow in the first place?

The Forest Service began changing its policy toward fire in 1995, when the environmental benefit of fire to a forest became more known, and the cost of suppressing it went up.

Fire clears out underbrush and creates forest openings, which in the long run prevents — wait for it — large fires.

The policy had its root in the fact that in the early part of this century, the more effort was made to extinguishing wildfires, the more wildfires there were.

“The mentality is changing,” Greg Aplet, a Denver-based fire scientist with The Wilderness Society, told USA Today in 2007, a huge year for wildfires in the U.S. “The obvious answer is not to fight fires we don’t need to fight.”

But how do you know for sure which fires those are? Except in the most wild of areas, it becomes a gamble that the weather patterns won’t promote a significant spread of the fire to the point where homes and businesses are threatened.

We’ve reached that point.

“The smoke from Pagami Creek has been particularly heavy this Tuesday morning in and around Grand Marais,” Paula Marie Powell tells MPR News today. “As a manager at a hotel, I have been checking guests out days before their departure date because of smoke complaints. Cars and deck chairs are covered in ash. Some of the local homeowners have been checking and running their sprinkler systems. The drought conditions are making people anxious, as we all know that it barely takes an effort to start a wildfire right now.”

Last week, an environmental group in Oregon filed suit against the Forest Service to require an environmental assessment before deciding whether to fight fires, including considering the cost of human life.

“The thesis of our case is that fighting fires is what has gotten us into the trouble we’re in,” said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. “It’s time to end the war against fire and learn to live with fire and manage it, rather than fight it.”

One of those filing the suit was the father of man who died fighting the Thirty Mile Fire in Washington in 2001.

“It’s one thing to die in the service of your country for a justifiable proper cause,” Ken Weaver told the Seattle Times. “The problem is we’ve got these kids out there dying for something that is scientifically bankrupt. We are subverting nature, causing more damage than good, and we are taking kids’ lives. That is just so wrong.”

(This information was incorrect. I regret the error)

(Photo: Julie Miedtke’s 2007 photo of the area of the Cavity Lake Fire via Flickr)

  • bench

    Apparently the schools in Grand Marais sent out this message earlier:

    “In accordance with Cook County Public Health recommendations, because of the heavy smoke in the air we are not allowing students to go outside for recess, gym classes or any other school activities.”

    I am just hoping the winds don’t end up blowing it into Duluth any time soon! (Of course my main hope is they get it under control)

  • bench
  • Bob Collins

    That link was in the post, Ben. (wink)

  • bench

    Ah I see that now… hard to keep track of what windows were already open and what were opened via links. But I do like all the info and pictures on the Updraft Page

  • Jon

    Let’s not forget the tax side of this too. For the past decade the U.S. Forest Service has had large cutbacks in funding at the same time that fire suppression expenses have been at record levels in some years – at least out in the arid west. If your resources are limited, doesn’t it make sense to let fires burn when they are in the middle of a wild place?

    As Eric highlights though, sometimes fires just don’t read the map properly and stop at the edge of federal lands.

    My family has a cabin near a large fire that took place several years ago in another state. During the fire, several times a day I looked for updates on the fire boundary maps with great anxiousness. Fortunately, ours was not impacted directly, but now I do feel some comfort in knowing that another fire of that size is less likely to occur in the area. Our forests are out of whack, when it can be done without loss of life sometimes it is good to try to help them back toward normal.

  • JC

    We keep building houses where rivers flood. We keep building houses where forests burn.

    Maybe we shouldn’t build houses where rivers flood, nor where forests burn?

  • Bob Collins

    Nature is always going to try to kill us. Where would be a safe place? Minneapolis. They’ve got tornadoes. And people with guns.

  • http://www.fseee.org Andy Stahl

    Bob,

    The case you write of was not filed “last week,” it was brought in 2004. The issue did not concern let-burn policies. The case was directed at the use of toxic aerial fire retardant, which poisons streams and kills fish. The court ruled in our favor.

    The Forest Service is now studying where and when aerial fire retardant is safe and effective to use. A final decision will issue by December 31 — of this year.

    Andy Stahl

    Executive Director

    Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics

  • Dave N

    Streaming the current live here north of chicago in the suburbs. We have an air quality warning due to the fire.

    We stream your music, smell your air, why not just move in.

  • jackie

    JC-I live in the “forest” where fires burn. This fire has moved into areas quite a distance from the BWCA. Are we only allowed to live in big cities? Many of the people that are in threat of evacuation live a distance from the Boundary Waters, and do not support the way that the fire is managed, and would never take a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters. Are you saying we should all move into large cities that don’t have trees or water, and are filled with caring folk like you. I would rather die in a fire.

  • Linda M

    We used to call these “wildfires.” Now it is called The Pagami Creek Fire or a “forest fire.” I think wildfire was more accurate. It is wild and we forget that Mother Nature is a force all her own. She who will not be tamed is making that point yet again.

    I wonder that the Forest Service fought the north and west boundaries of the fire and left the folks to the south and east exposed. One of my favorite trips of all times was dogsledding with White Wilderness located N and W of Isabella. Can you imagine trying to evacuate a huge number of huskies (I don’t know how many) along with three horses, your family and photos and important papers?

    There isn’t a Red Cross shelter for all those huskies.

  • E. Palcich

    There has to be some common sense incorporated into Forest Service policy. Was it wise to let a fire spread under drought type conditions? This is the busiest time of the year for the BWCAW–wouldn’t it have been wiser to subdue the fire earlier, using water bomber planes–before the fire got out of hand? Now how much is it costing to bring in all the help and equipment that is needed? And now the fire is affecting property owners that would have been safe if the fire had been controlled early on.

    We are living in a time of climate fluctuation that has not been experienced in recent history. Therefore the wisest policy would have been to subdue the fire at the onset.

    Agency policy is slow to change, and then equally slow to make necessary adaptations to the changes.

    In this case, something went terribly wrong with both Forest Service policy and fire danger predictions. Policy should first and foremost allow people on the ground to make individualized fire control decisions based upon local conditions and during critical windows of time.

    Fire decisions should not be based on some kind of game plan, because fighting a major fire is not a very fun game.

    Fires within the BWCAW should only be allowed to burn under appropriate climate/weather conditions. The fire ecology of the great pine forests that once covered the area is not the ecology that fits the environment of today.

    We can only hope that cooler weather will help contain the fire.

  • http://aol.com Scott Belknap

    Even though the Pagami Creek Fire has consumed our route for a September 24 entry reservation I am so thankful that this fire was not suppressed in the early stages. The cleanup of decadent forests and blow down will give way to healthy, wildlife rich, renewed forests in the BWCAW.

    I paddled through part of the 2006 Cavity Lake fire last week and the entire area is covered with color changing hardwoods. The conifers and moose will be next. With the mosaic of burned areas created since the Cavity Lake Fire it will become easier to manage fires that burn into recent fire perimeters.

    Thank you Forest Service for allowing the natural cycle of fire to return to my favorite place on earth.

  • Larry S

    I understand the benefits of wilderness fires, but the fact that this fire has now reached 80 square miles is sufficient proof that the decision not to suppress was the wrong one in the present case. While forest openings are clearly desirable, 80 square miles is more than an “opening” and, if the fire reaches the 1999 blowdown areas, this could become a disaster of historic proportions.

    While the suppression decision is far easier in hindsight, I have paddled that area for years, and know it well. The argument that fire is justified to consume excess fuels on the ground is much weaker than suggested. And it will be interesting to compare the final totals to bring this fire under control with the cost of suppressing it early on.

  • Larry S

    The decision to not suppress the fire appears even more questionable based upon the following report from today’s Duluth Tribune: “The region around the fire has seen little rain since July, and the severe drought has left trees, brush, grass and leaves bone dry and ready to burn. The fire also is just south of the areas hardest hit by the July 4, 1999, windstorm that toppled millions of trees in the wilderness, many of which remain ready to burn.”

    The recently imposed restrictions on BWCA campfires also calls into the question the “let it burn” decision.

    The Forest Service was betting on forecasted rains that did not materialize. Appears that was a very costly bet, both financially and environmentally.

  • Allen

    The fire fighting equipment and tactics of the forest service lack “punch!” There are fire suppression systems being used around the world that can agressively knock down fires! The forest service would rather spend $7 million on inventory software than agressive fire fighting systems!