How should authorities decide which wildfires to fight, and which to let burn?

The forest fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area has grown rapidly in recent days. Hundreds of firefighters and members of the National Guard are trying to contain it. Today’s Question: How should authorities decide which wildfires to fight, and which to let burn?

  • This is precisely the type of question the media should not be asking the general public. Leave this to the people who have studied wildfires and understand how they work.

  • Alicia

    Although the experts should make the decisions, obviously, it’s a good idea to discuss these things, especially in a time with funding that seems to be cut at an exponential rate for our most important public services.

    I think it would make sense to let a natural burn go- to a point it is in danger of harming people’s homes. Natural fires are part of the cycle of life, even if it effects all of the animals and people that come in contact with it. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be trying to contain the BWCA fire, but-in my mind anyway- it does make a difference that this wasn’t started by a careless person.

  • Steve the Cynic

    What “room34” said! On a question like this, let the experts make the decision. (And then they should explain clearly why they did what they did, so as to minimize the ridiculous conspiracy theories that arise in the absence of information.)

  • barracuda

    I can’t improve on room34’s answer.

  • Philip

    I shall consult the bones!

    Ditto on room34’s answer.

  • Rich

    What would be the impact on a “wilderness fire” if news organizations did not feel the need to hype it?

    Perhaps nature would just continue to do what it has always done, create and destroy.

  • david

    Those whinny Ely people can’t have their cake and eat it too. The want to live like pioneers, with no governmental influence, and do as they please. It is strongly suggested to them to do sustainable clearing of their land to do what the occasional forest fires did, get rid off excess fuel. Few of them ever do. As soon as a fire erupts they want government to come in and stamp it out. There are a lot of old standing hostilities up there ever since the forming of the BWCA. If you want to live in a forest, you got to understand that forest will burn eventually. If you want to live in the middle of no where, stop whining about the lack of jobs. If you let mining and timber interest come in and run rampant, you’re still going to lose what you are wishing to hold onto.

  • Tina

    This is to David all those people in Ely do not want to live like pioneers. The ones who want to live like that have relocated there from big cities. The people that where born and raised in Ely knows the risks of wild fires and do keep the folige cleared. The logging company offered to go in and clear up some of that mess from the blowdown right after it happened and they were told they couldn’t but once the wood was rotten and of no value they were saked if they wanted to. You want to take this outr on someone or blame someone then blame these eviromental groups from all over the US and big cities who tell us how to manage the forests. Yet it is not there back yard(so to speak) in danger right now.

    As for letting nature take its course look at what happened in the Yellowstone National Park when they did that. Nature is taking its course and man needs to try to hold it back from destroying everything. Predictions where made of what might happen 12 years ago when the 1999 Blow-down happened and those predictions are coming true.

    My heart and prayers go out to my friends and family in that area and everyone else.

    I pray every day that every firefighter comes home safe at the end of the day! Thanks to all of you men and women fighting this fire.

  • RalfW

    It’d be very easy to second guess the decision made some time ago to let the Pagami Creek fire burn. It was a natural fire, and fire is part of the ecosystem, and even the best weather forecasts couldn’t have accurately predicted weeks of drying conditions followed by days of dry, gusty winds.

    Now that the fire has ‘exploded’ of course they have to fight. At this point, as the fire becomes the largest in nearly 100 years in Minnesota, letting nature take it’s course might lead to hundreds more sq miles and many year-round homes and businesses to burn.

    I spend a lot of time in that region, and serve on the board of a small retreat center with a very rustic facility about 8 or 10 miles SE of the burn area. We’ve always known that fire risk is there, and I’ve been at camp in the past when fireplanes have droned back and forth to fight other fires – it’s always disturbing to know how vulnerable we might be.

    I worry much more about our year round neighbors. Their livelihoods and community are very much at risk now. Our center would be forever changed if fire swept through, but no one would be displaced or out of a job (it’s all volunteer).

    But even given all that, I wouldn’t second guess fire management decisions. They do the best they can with the info and experience they have. We’re just armchair commenters.

  • Chris

    The best way to destroy the BWCA Wilderness would be to prevent it from burning. Fires have shaped the ecosystem in the area for thousands of years, and the forest needs to burn to be able to regenerate properly. Heavy handed human intervention in the 20th century to put out small fires has eliminated natural fire breaks while increasing the fuel load, and we are now paying the price with larger than normal fires in a shorter period of time.

    The solution then is not more 20th century style fire suppression, but less. The stepped up controlled burn program is a good step. Logging does not act at all in the same way as fire does in the wilderness, and again results in hotter and larger fires in the future.

    Residents and business need to invest in local fire suppression systems which have proven effective, control the fuel load around their property, and realize they live in a forest that burns. Stay safe everyone.

  • JN1682

    I think it’s important to point out that mining and logging are a part of the country that we love and we’ve not had issues with how they play a part in the woods we enjoy. As a matter of fact many locals could care less about the how nature takes it’s course in the BWCA. That’s not what we’re upset about. The problem is that by letting nature take it’s course it subjects private land owners and residents to danger who border these areas. The least they could do is set limits and contain it while it’s managable or remove all efforts on the north side and let it burn into this protected wilderness but be sure to have enough help on hand to save people’s property. Foliage removal and metal roofs might help but come on, a big enough fire will still burn a home especially in these conditions! What they want for this beloved wilderness should affect any land outside it.

  • david

    There have been no issues with mining and logging? really? The environment has never been damaged because of careless actions done by either?

    On the other hand, who except the fire fighters are really in danger? And they don’t HAVE to be there. Don’t you have a car, or at least legs to carry you to safety? It’s not like you don’t have ample forewarning of the impending dangers. No instead I think you’re biggest concerns are material. And I don’t care about your stuff. The environments groups don’t care about your stuff, or your economic out look. I care about preserving a fraction of what’s left in the world as a natural and undisturbed place. When that’s gone it’ll never return. You can always move somewhere like everyone else does to find a job.

  • david

    Or buy more crap. In fact that would be good for the economy.

  • Mallory

    To David,

    Those are some pretty big words coming from someone who clearly doesn’t live in Ely. Your assumptions about the type of people of Ely and their attitudes are obviously not based on actual encounters just on how you chose to justify your feelings on this fire and the politics involved in the BWCA. I am a member of this community as are other people commenting on this blog and therefore have every right to be concerned about the fires that are threatening the homes of many. Not all people that are living here want to live the pioneer lifestyle and guess what we as a whole do not live in the manner. Yes we are a small town but no most of us don’t live in a tent or shack with no running water or electricity. I live here because I was born and raised here. I have family here and a history with childhood memories. I did not decide one day to pack up and move here for the wilderness. For you to suggest that I should just pack up and move to a bigger city just because I do not like the way we handled the blow down or anything else related to the BWCA is pretty harsh. There is more to Ely then just the BWCA. There is a need for the fireman to be there. They are putting themselves in danger to protect this land and the people who ACTUALLY live here. I would think that should an area around your home catch fire you would expect as well as be GRATEFUL to firemen that respond to the situation. I also highly doubt that if a fire came you would not try to protect your belongings instead of just leaving it to burn. You sound like the type of person that would then tell the person that followed your advise to just get in the car and drive away, that they are irresponsible should they end up in financial difficulty as a result of the losing their home. Maybe before commenting on a situation that does not directly affect you, you should get some more background information on the people it does directly affect. You are not above us, nor do you sound like you possess much humanity. You don’t like hearing us whine, then quit reading about it because unlike us you can go on with your life without ever having to deal with the consequences.

  • David

    Wow. Reading the comments makes me think about changing my name.

    I doubt any of us here afre qualified to debate the merits of the decisions made by professional forest management people. They made the best decision they could, with the data they had and the predictions their models provided.

    It hasn’t worked the way they expected. Gee, in the total history of humanity that’s never happened before.

    Irregardless of the discussion on fire suppression, the previously posting David displays the classic NIMBY bias. He “knows” the BWCAW is virgin untouched wilderness. He “knows” the residents of Ely are all uncouth, uncultured louts living in shacks with privies and no running water.

    He probably doesn’t know that when i lived in Ely I had a better, faster internet connection than here is Cottage Grove. He probably doesn’t know the immigrant history of the area, about the logging history and tradition, about the underground mines, about the fact that the vast majority of the BWCAW has been logged. That the indians 200 years ago were deliberately burning forests to improve their blueberry harvests.

    Nope. He and is sanctimonious atttitude live in the midst of “civilization” telling the good folks of Ely how they should live their lives. After all, he knows what is best for you folks.

  • Elanne

    I do think the Forest Service has some explaining to do regarding this fire.

    Drought conditions were already prevailing in the BWCAW when the fire first started in August. All of the locals were aware of this.

    It would have been a lot more cost effective to have put out the fire at the onset.

    Forest Service policy allows for some fires to burn in the wilderness. However, common sense would have dictated otherwise, given the conditions on the ground.

    One Forest Service official commented that the FS was anticipating south winds at this time of the year. However, our wind pattern is generally from the west. With the extremes of weather patterns over this past year, it doesn’t make much sense to try to second guess what Nature is going to do. Wouldn’t it have been better to prepare for the worst case scenario–which would have been west winds moving the fire into the blowdown area? This is exactly what happened. And now private property and businesses are being threatened, too.

    While it is true that fire played a significant ecological role in the white pine forest that originally covered the area, human interference over the last century has totally changed that ecosystem. Fire can still play a role, but the dynamics are going to be a lot different.

    I hope that the scope of this fire makes people wake up. The Forest Service is neglecting to consider cumulative impacts to the overall integrity of the public lands that it is supposed to be protecting/managing. The extent of mineral exploration that is taking place in Superior National Forest, and in areas bordering the BWCAW is having a huge impact on wildlife, with potential impacts to water quality. Yet the Forest Service continues to stick with its policy to allow all mineral prospecting leases, even though it also has a mandate to protect wildernesss and watersheds.

    Those who love and enjoy the BWCAW and other wilderness experiences need to express their concerns right now–in the middle of crisis–to the Forest Service and to state legislaltors and the Governor, who are pushing for the mining of contaminating low-grade copper-nickel desposits in an area that has been valued over the past century for its wilderness character. We value this land for its inherent natural beauty and the bounty of its forests, waters, and wildlife.

    Speak up now–or forever hold your peace.

  • jackie

    All I can say is that I am glad that David, not the one that is kind and has empathy for others, but the first David doesn’t live here by us. I would not wish to have a neighbor that is so self centered and selfish, and kind of resent that a large portion of our state is managed and kept pristine for people that are as selfish as him. He and many others act as though the people that live in Northern Minnesota are second class citizens, and that he should make decisions about where I live. I really don’t tell him what to do where he lives. I guess one of the reasons that I continue to live here is the quality of people that I encounter every day. They are kind, generous, loving and helpful, and love living in such a beautiful place, most of my neighbors wouldn’t step foot into the BWCA even though they live within 30 miles of it.

  • Chris

    To Elanne, I have to take issue with this, “While it is true that fire played a significant ecological role in the white pine forest that originally covered the area, human interference over the last century has totally changed that ecosystem”

    While there are less White and Red pine in the forest today than there were before logging, the makeup of the BWCA and surrounding area has always been a patchwork of different forest types with white pine being just one of them. And the everything has always been based around fire in some way. With no fire, Jack Pine will disappear, fire prone balsams will explode in population (creating risk of another spruce budworm outbreak as there was in 93′), red pines and birch will get crowded out, and so on. The climate is also just too cold to have the rate of rot keep up with the rate of growth like it does in southern climates. So over time, all the nutrients in the weak soil will get trapped in dead vegetation that will just keep piling up, and then burn.

    There are effective fire suppression systems designed to protect a localized area from wildfire. Many of them were installed after the blowdown, and were tested in the 2007 Ham lake fire that swept over the Gunflint Trail. Those who had enough time to get them running before the fire hit were saved, and the fire went right over their property. Living in a fire based area without preparing for fire is like living on a fault line assuming an earthquake won’t hit.

    Also, David is a jerk and a troll. Do not feed.

  • GregX

    Authorities should be out lighting fires as often as their resources would permit. In fact property owners should consider it.

  • Tina

    Please do not say that the Officials in charge of this fire did not know what could happen as it was predicted 12 years ago after the July 4, 1999 Blowdown that this could happen and that if the fire got big enough or hot enough the only thing stopping it would be Lake Superior. It may be 2 years later then anticipated but it is coming true.

  • cama

    I agree with Elanne. I live in northern Minnesota. Trading insults about where one lives is really not the issue and unhelpful. One thing I would like to add – that seems to be overlooked – is the agony of the animals living in the forest that have little chance in blowdown terrain when a fire moves as quickly as this one. When it comes to managing fires we do need to consider each situation, sometimes operating differently from the norm. Constructive criticism – the operative word being constructive – is how we learn from a mistake, instead of learning nothing and making a mistake meaningless.

  • Chris

    Tina – correct me if I am wrong but the Pagami Creek Fire is not in the 1999 Blowdown area. Here is a map from NOAA showing the area most affected, and they are all North of this fire. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t reach it, but that would require some very odd strong southerly winds.

    The more recent Ham and Cavity Lake fires were in the blowdown, and did not burn to Lake Superior.

  • Elanne

    Chris–According to an MPR report, residents of Milwaukee and Chicago were reporting an odd smell coming from the BWCAW smoke, which they said smelled more like burning garbage of some sort, rather than like wood smoke. The response from the FS was that the smell might be coming from burning areas of the blow-down–as the rotted material from the blow down burned, it would have a more acrid odor.

  • Elanne

    Correction, Chris–I heard the smell report on a Duluth TV station last night. It wasn’t on MPR.

  • Chris

    Elanne – yes on a better map I do see some pockets of blowdown that the fire passed through. I just don’t remember the smell being an issue in 2006/07 when the fire was buring through the east end of the primarily damaged area. But it could be that, I don’t know. I guess I never really thought forest fire and ash really smelled all that great anyway!

  • Steve the Cynic

    The whole idea of wilderness is a myth. There is no place on earth that has not been affected by human activity. That was true even before the industrial revolution. On this continent, wooly mammoths were hunted to extinction over 10,000 years ago. Furthermore, the idea that human activity is “unnatural,” or that areas “untrammeled by man” have some sacred value, is pure ideology, not based in rational fact. Yes, it’s good to reserve some areas to be kept relatively free from human meddling, but the standard for our stewarship of the environment (in this context, whether to “let it burn” or not) should be the sustainable use of a healthy ecosystem.