Wildfire on the Gunflint Trail
May 10, 2007 6:33 AM   Subscribe

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is burning (again). Over the past few days, more than 22,000 acres have burned, and a mandatory evacuation has been ordered for the north end of the Gunflint Trail. Fire containment remains at only 5%, and the fire's growth potential remains high due to strong winds, lack of rainfall, and the dense concentration of blown-down trees caused by a major windstorm in 1999. Officials are now attempting to fight fire with fire. Fire danger is high to extreme across northern Minnesota and fire restrictions are in effect indefinitely. The BWCAW previously.
posted by mauglir (19 comments total)
Personal note: I had a fishing trip planned this weekend that would have started on Seagull Lake, which is at the end of the Gunflint Trail. Now I'll have to make due with spending the fishing opener on Cass Lake.
posted by mauglir at 6:36 AM on May 10, 2007

Sad, I caught some mighty big pike and walleye up there!
posted by Pollomacho at 6:53 AM on May 10, 2007

this sucks; i love that trail. thanks for the post.
posted by ms.jones at 7:07 AM on May 10, 2007

Canada, if you can't take care of your things, your parent the USA is going to have to step in and take care of them for you. You see, the reason the place is burning is because of all the flammable petroleum underneath it. We're going to remove it for you and take it somewhere safe. No need to thank us.
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:09 AM on May 10, 2007

(typed over: "This is obviously Canada's fault.")
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:11 AM on May 10, 2007

I don't get it. Isn't a wilderness area supposed to be wild? Aren't fires like this essential to what wilderness is all about? Why not preserve wilderness, let it burn, and let nature - and not man - decide what to do with its forests?
posted by three blind mice at 7:13 AM on May 10, 2007

three blind mice, that has been an ongoing debate ever since the BWCAW was created. Many people agree with you, but there are others (many with businesses that are linked to the tourism the wilderness provides) who want things managed carefully. The Minnesota DNR has been performing "controlled burns" every summer since the 1999 blowdown to basically achieve what a natural fire would, but in a way that isn't so dangerous to people who live nearby.
posted by mauglir at 7:29 AM on May 10, 2007

Thanks for posting this. It's been far too long since I've been back to the Boundary Waters...been meaning to put a trip together for years.

Now I'll have to make due with spending the fishing opener on Cass Lake.

Growing up in Bemidji, I spent many a fishing opener on Cass Lake...ah, memories.
posted by dan g. at 7:57 AM on May 10, 2007

Many people agree with you, but there are others (many with businesses that are linked to the tourism the wilderness provides) who want things managed carefully.

I'm a city boy mauglir. I get nervous when I get too far from a decent bar so I can't really relate to the whole outdoor life thing. It seems to me however that any cat who really digs wilderness would gladly accept the whole hog - destructive fires and all. Too much careful management of the rest of the world is the reason why we need wilderness areas. I am a bit surprised by the expressions of sadness by the people who love the area. This is your part of the world. What's your take on it?
posted by three blind mice at 8:24 AM on May 10, 2007

I understand the views of those who want it managed without agreeing with them.

Change always comes with a sense of loss, and this is a pretty dramatic change for many areas. Realizing that it's just nature taking its course doesn't really make a person feel any better. Besides, natural or not, the grass-and-small tree regrowth just isn't as beautiful as an old-growth forest.

That said, I don't think that we should try to manage the BWCA into some kind of static non-natural state that fits what we think it should look like. It will eventually come back as good as it ever was and will be healthy to boot. It just won't be in my lifetime.
posted by Ickster at 9:11 AM on May 10, 2007

Shit— my cousin's been up there since the weekend, and isn't due back for another couple weeks. I hope he's OK... Maybe I should call my aunt...
posted by klangklangston at 9:18 AM on May 10, 2007

I used to fight forest fires for the US forest service from 93-95. Since I lived in Duluth, I fought many MN fires.

To the extent that they are doing things the same as they were then, the BWCA has a "let it burn" policy. That said, the FS does try to contain and control the fires lest they get really out of hand.

It's also interesting to point out that firefighters have to abide by the BWCA rules against motors and engines, which makes fighting fires very difficult - you're stuck with hand tools and repeated trips with bladders to pack water in. Sometimes if you're lucky, you can put the pump just outside the boundary and run a few hundred yards of hose - but that's not really a benefit since rolling up that much wet, nasty, muddy hose is worse than hiking water through the northern MN terrain.

And speaking of the terrain - Fires near the BWCA area tend to be very difficult to fight. The terrain is every bit as steep and rocky as what you might find out west just not as high up - but even in drought conditions, it's much more overgrown. There are lots of twisted and broken ankles, and worse. Plus, some of the swamps and bogs are infested with horseflies the size of small dragons that will leave you bleeding and screaming as they pick you to death.

Good times. :-)
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:15 AM on May 10, 2007

The problem with preventitive management is that the people who live and have recreation property in the area don't want the fires to impact their views and personal enjoyment. Think about owning a lodge up there and as part of the "management plan" there is a 5,000 acre controlled burn slated for your area. No one wants to jeopardize the tourist money the area brings in, so they tip-toe around the issue until catastrophe strikes.

One of the bigger issues with preventative maintenance is opposition to logging. The 1999 blowdown happened because maintenance logging was seen as a destructive measure. I think this is a perennial issue for many public forests.
posted by limmer at 11:25 AM on May 10, 2007

I was actually up at our cabin on Elbow Lake, right west of the BWCA, during that windstorm- it was pretty impressive.

My family logged in the Arrowhead region for many years, so we have kind of a love/hate relationship with logging up there.

the blowdown was pretty severe in some areas, with enormous sections of old-growth forest being flattened. now that a lot of it has had time to dry out and turn into a giant bed of kindling, it's ripe for a huge fire.

Naturally this is what would happen, it's just a trade off between letting a natural catastrophe happening or maintaining this picture of nature as a pristine, peaceful place. It's a hard call to make, given that so little of our nation is still wild- lots of people don't want to take this beautiful area and let it all go up in flames.

One thing that isn't mentioned here is that many of the pine trees in the forests up here thrive on fire- only releasing seeds after a good forest fire. So often the old-growth stuff will stay intact while the smaller trees and undergrowth burns off. It seems to vary a lot.
posted by EricGjerde at 12:31 PM on May 10, 2007

I don't get it. Isn't a wilderness area supposed to be wild? Aren't fires like this essential to what wilderness is all about? Why not preserve wilderness, let it burn, and let nature - and not man - decide what to do with its forests?

In addition to the harm to tourism/vacation-home views/"pristine nature" that others have mentioned, there's also the risk that large, uncontrolled fires in wilderness areas will spread to populated areas and damage homes, businesses, and human lives. You can prevent a small fire from spreading by manually digging lines around it well before it hits any populated areas, or you can let it grow to a giant raging thing that jumps over lines that are three bulldozer-tracks wide when you're desperate to save the neighboring communities. Then people start wondering why we didn't try to control the fire when it was small and way out there in the wilderness.
posted by vytae at 3:06 PM on May 10, 2007

the only thing bad about this fire is the property damage--and if all we're talking about is people's vacation/second homes, then i'm not that concerned/sad about it. (there are folks who live there of course, and those who depend on tourism for their income. more sympathy for them by far.) the forest needs fire to be a healthy forest. just like folks who tie up their poodle in the back yard and get mad when a wolf eats it for dinner, a person who builds a log cabin in the wilderness has no business getting upset when a natural fire burns it down.

'course, this wasn't a natural fire, really. it started from an ill-tended campfire. now *that* group of folks should feel like assholes, cuz they are.
posted by RedEmma at 3:59 PM on May 10, 2007

Allow me to pause a moment and bask in the heat of RedEmma's profound intelligence.
posted by spock at 4:51 PM on May 10, 2007

The Cook County Sheriff has established a homeowner hot line for landowners in the evacuated area

I guess this is one time that the moniker is appropriate, eh?
posted by spock at 4:52 PM on May 10, 2007

The problem with trying to put out all fires when they start is that nature is a bitch and doesn't accept our attempted limitations. If you put out all the small fires, eventually you're gonna get a really big mofo.

Fuel reduction burning certainly helps but is not a panacea.
posted by wilful at 8:16 PM on May 10, 2007

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