BWCA Fire: Rain, snow and wind pepper fire area; Freeze tonight!

Update 5:00pm:

Pagami Creek Fire Headlines:

-Cooler wetter weather pelts the fire Wednesday

-Winds remained high, NW gusting to 35 mph in Ely

-Smoke plume not as visible on satellite images, but clouds are obscuring plume

-Winds will ease Thursday and early Friday

-Winds will shift direction from the south and increase late Friday & Saturday

-Higher temps and lower humidity expected by this weekend

-Wildfires often burn “patchwork” pattern meaning devastation may not be complete within fire perimeter

Some good news:

The expected blast of the season’s coldest air to date peppered the BWCA Fire with rain and snow showers Wednesday.

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Temperatures held in the upper 30s, with reports of rain and snow in Ely, Biwabik and at Sawbill Lake.

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Dark clouds and wet streets in “downtown” Ely Wednesday afternoon.

Owner Bill Hansen from Sawbill Lake Outfitters passed me information today that they are more optimistic. Better weather at Sawbill and the fact that he has dumped as much as 50,000 gallons of water through his sprinkler system on the 4 acres surrounding his lodge have him upbeat. Here’s part of the email passed along today.

“Hello Paul,

I just spoke to Bill Hansen from Sawbill Canoe Outfitters in Tofte a few minutes ago, and he wanted me to pass along some weather info to you. He said that they’ve been getting snow flurries off and on this morning.. the first flurries of the season. He said they’ve seen about a dozen snow showers go through so far today. Temperature was 35 degrees on his thermometer.

Also, FYI — he said they’re in a better position today in terms of the fire threat. The sky is blue and the surrounding area is green. Cooler temperatures and the wind shift has given them a breather. They also wetted down everything yesterday with their sprinkler system.”

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The not so good news:

There’s still plenty of wind, winds gusted to 35 mph in Ely Wednesday afternoon.

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The fire is likely to “survive” the onslaught of rain and snow showers and cooler weather. Lighter winds through early Friday may give tankers and air crews the opportunity to douse large areas near trails and lakes. Ground crews may be able to effectively conduct back burns, robbing fuel and slowing the fires advance. We may see some partial “containment” numbers by Friday….but that doesn’t mean the fire is out.

Extended Outlook: Mixed bag

As the center of high pressure drifts overhead Thursday, the winds will finally ease in the fire area for the frst time in days.

By late Friday, the center of the high will shift east, and winds will again increase…this time from the south.

Winds will be gusty again Saturday, and this could be a day where the fire makes a major move to the north. This could put popular BWCA lakes like Alice, Malberg, Fraser and Thomas in the fire’s path if the fire has not already reached those areas.

There are two chances for rain in the next week. Sunday and Tuesday may feature some showers. The GFS is cranking out total rainfall of around 1″ in Ely for the two systems combined. That’s not likely enough to put the fire out…but it may help suppression efforts.

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Temperatures look warmer and drier again by late next week. That means we may see more fire growth in that time frame.

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Freeze Warnings Tonight:

Cover those petunias!

A full fledged freeze warning is in effect for most of Minnesota through Thursday morning. The central metro core may escape a hard freeze with lows in the mid 30s, but it looks pretty likely elsewhere.

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Some good news for gardeners?

If you can escape (protect from) the freeze early Thursday, much of southern Minnesota may be frost free for the next two weeks at least.

Plan accordingly!


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***Posted 9:15 am Wednesday***

Pagami Creek Fire Headlines Wednesday:

-Charred area has now increased to more than 100,000 acres

(Exact size difficult to determine, thick smoke plume obscuring vision from the air)

-Area burned so far exceeds area covered by downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul

-Biggest Minnesota fire in 93 years

(Larget fire in Minnesota since 960,000 acre Cloquet-Moose lake Fire in 1918)

-Popular BWCA lakes & canoe routes burned

(Including “numbered lake” chains to Insula, and eastern Kawishiwi River route)

-Smoke plume has traveled over 500 miles

-Smoke reported in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Ontario well north of Toronto

-Smoke smells odd, like “garbage” and “old tires”

-Fire likely to continue to grow largely unchecked for at least a week or more

-Survivors caught in “firestorm” on BWCA describe harrowing tale

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Prime BWCA canoe routes charred:

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I can’t emphasize enough how this fire will change for decades some of the most popular BWCA lakes and canoe routes. The route from Lake One to Insula contains some of the most popular lakes and campsites in the BWCA.

To the east, the fire has reached popular lakes the eastern Kawishiwi River route including Kawasachong, Square and Polly, and threatens Koma and Malberg Lakes.

I have paddled and camped along both routes multiple times. This is prime BWCA real estate. It will be changed for a lifetime.

The map below shows the fire perimeter Tuesday.

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Smoke plume now 500+ miles long

The massive smoke plume is still thick in Chicago Wednesday morning. Visibilities there are around 3 miles at the lakefront, with smoke and haze reported from NWS sites in Chicago and Milwaukee.

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Odd smelling smoke may be “blowdown decay”

Numerous reports indicate the smoke in Wisconsin and Chicago smells “odd” MPR listeners report in Updraft that the smoke smells like “burning tires” or “garbage” and not your typical “wood smoke” smell.

The answer may lie in the fact that the fire is burning through some of the “BWCA blowdown area” from July 4, 1999. The massive amount of wood on the ground in various stages of decay and rot may be the reason foe the odd smelling smoke.

MPR Updraft commenter Jon from Batavia, IL (west of Chicago) may have the best explanation.

“I live in Batavia, IL, about 40 mi W of Chicago. I smelled the smoke earlier today, thought it was some local air pollution. I wasn’t even aware there was a fire in the BWCA until I got an air quality advisory email from city hall. The smell is unsurprising, though. I went winter camping on Pine Lake a couple of times, and good firewood (legal dead & down) was surprisingly hard to find. I ended up burning some punky old

1999 blowdown pine. The heartwood was still saturated with pitch, but the microbes were slowly breaking it down. The stuff burned like old tires, hot, sooty and orange flames. The smoke smelled like a cross between old telephone poles and rotten wood. The heat was so intense that it wrecked my thin knockdown wood stove. Big streamers of soot came out of the chimney and rained down on my (formerly) white tent.

It’s not surprising that the smoke doesn’t smell like a pine-scented Christmas candle.

Luckily, the tip of the arrowhead has gotten more rain than the burn area. Lots more blowdown over there.

Commenter name: jon”

The “super charged” blowdown fuels may also be playing a role in the explosive fire growth observed thus far.

Fire weather outlook:

I still expect strong northwest winds between 10 and 25 mph in the fire zone today.

As high pressure drifts overhead tonight and Thursday, winds will calm down.

On Friday, the high will slide east, and winds will once again increase, this time from the south. As winds increase from the south at 15-30 mph by Saturday, and temps warm into the 70s, fire behavior will be more aggressive. This may be some good news for Isabella to the south, but bad news for the heart of the BWCA as the fire will be pushed northeast into the central BWCA. Prime BWCA lakes like Alice, Thomas and Fraser may be in jeopardy by the weekend.

Given the difficult (impossible) terrain and with no major rainfall events in sight, this fire may burn largely unchecked for weeks to come.

Stay tuned….

Freeze warning tonight:

A hard freeze is likely tonight and Thursday morning over most of Minnesota. It’s coming 3 weeks early this year…the average first 32 at MSP Airport is October 7th.

The inner core of the Twin Cities may just escape a hard frost/freeze with lows in the mid to upper 30s. The record low at MSP is 36 Thursday morning.

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  • Scott

    First want to say that I wish all those living in the Pagami Creek fire area only the best, and hope all heed the warnings and are safe.

    I’ve heard some “disturbing” comments in the media lately from people in the fire area feeling that not enough is being done to stop the fire. What disturbs me is that I equate living in the middle of a dense forest to be equivalent to living in a Hurricane-prone area (i.e.; Florida Coast), or in an active earthquake zone (i.e.; California), or on a flood plain (numerous areas along the Mississippi). You live where you live by choice, and you need to understand the risks off this choice. I would never wish on anyone what some of the folks in NE Minnesota are dealing with because of this fire, but pointing fingers and the DNR and those trying to deal with the fire as best as possible is unfair. You can’t “stop” a fire such as this one, just like you can’t stop a hurricane. You get out of its way and hope for the best.

    The thing that I don’t think is getting enough attention is that a fire such as this a natural part of the life cycle of this forest. It takes fire to rejuvenate and propagate these forests, as we have seen in some of the areas that experienced the Blow Down event in 1999 and the subsequent controlled burns that were completed. Those areas have come back better then they were before the blow down! Yes, it is unfortunate that existing trails and campsites in the BWCA will never be the same, and yes, it may take a number of years for the trees to come back, but they will come back. The forest will be better for it, and this in itself will bring people into the area.

  • Amy B

    Please remember that the Pagami Creek Fire did not completely consume all 100,000+ acres out there. There will be places with no fire or only surface fire. The rest, yes, will be changed, as change is a part of life. We’ll see beautiful green growth next spring already with different wildflowers taking advantage of the open canopy and new trees in a few years. Wildlife flock to these areas that are now open. Woodpeckers love damaged trees for the insects they bring. The “natural” cycle of things can be so beautiful!

  • Jodi

    Thank you for addressing the reasoning behind the foul smelling smoke. Living about an hour or two southwest of the fire, I have noticed that the smell (when it drifts this way) is indeed odd.

    Does anyone know how far away the fire is from those blowdown areas that were left largely untreated though?

  • John

    The blowdown was focused on an area from the north of Snowbank Lake towards the northeast up to Sea Gull. A thin line of heavy blowdown continued right along the border traveling east from Sea Gull.

    The fire is south of this area but there are a few heavy patches of blowdown about 5-10 miles southwest of Brule Lake and around Brule Lake itself. This blowdown area is about 15 miles east of the fire, although it is not a large area of downed trees.

    My information is based just on a few trips to the BWCAW since the blowdown and the USFS blowdown map. I have no information on what areas have been “cleaned” within the blowdown. The Cavity Lake Fire (2006) burned west of the very Northern section of the Gunflint and the Ham Lake Fire (2007) burned along and east of the very Northern section of the Gunflint trail. As mentioned earlier, these were both in heavy blowdown areas.

  • Julia

    When you refer to the “inner core” of the Metro not receiving a hard freeze, what exactly does that mean? I’m trying to figure out if I need to haul my plants in tonight. I’m about two miles from 7th and Hennepin. Also, how does this change for container gardening? Or up a story from street level?

    (Not meaning to ignore or minimize the real issue of how the frost will affect regional harvests.)

  • Paul Huttner

    Hi Julia:

    I’d say better safe than sorry. You may dip to 35 or so, which would avoid a hard freeze, but frost can still occur at ground level. If you’re 1 story up that’s even better for you.

    Why not cover what you can or bring it inside?

    If you do sneak through tonight, you may be frost free for another two weeks or so…

    Paul Huttner

  • Julia

    Thanks, Paul! Just heard you on the radio and I appreciate the response!

    I probably will bring some of the plants in, but a few are heavier than I can comfortably lift by myself (hanging over a balcony) so it’s good to know that the risk of freezing may be lower than the risk of trying to move them unassisted and potentially dropping them.

  • Chris

    Hi Paul, I just wanted to ask you to please avoid using the word “destroyed” to describe the effects of the Pagami Creek Fire in and around the BWCA, as you did this afternoon on the radio. The ecology of the area completely revolves around fairly frequent fires that create a patchwork of habitats around the area. Every species of plant and animal has in some ways adapted to fire. Trees like the Jack Pine need it to reproduce, and without it balsam will crowd out other types of forest while at the same time creating an even more combustable mix. Next year the entire area will be a radiant green with new flowers, sprouting trees, and all the animals that thrive in that type of habitat. Just as it is currently at the end of the Gunflint Trail that burned in 2007. Also, the rate of growth outpaces the rate of rot so the math will always favor fire in the end.

    One reason for the increased size and ferocity of fires in north eastern MN is from the aggressive fires suppression applied to the area throughout the 20th century, which allowed excessive fuel to build up. So by trying to save the wilderness, humans intervention was destroying it. Now when we say it is being destroyed, it is really being saved and renewed for the next generation. To love the BWCA, you have to love the fire. Even if that can be difficult during times like this.

    Still, keep up the good work focusing on the fire, I do want it to calm down/go out soon. It has gotten quite large enough! I thought 2006/2007 was big.