Boundary Waters: The Fire Next TimeThe 1999 storm has set the stage for the wilderness fire of the century.
By Greg Breining
Roger Ottmar has worked many years in the woods, but he was hardly prepared for what he saw this past fall in the Superior National Forest. As research forester for the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station in Seattle, he spent nearly a month in northeastern Minnesota with a team of forest experts, assessing the amount of potential "fuel" in the aftermath of the freak July 4 storm, which leveled trees in a swath more than 30 miles long.
Ottmar had never seen anything like it. Trees were flattened for miles. Many had been snapped off 20 feet high. Dead wood formed a tangled, well-ventilated mat so thick a person could stand on a horizontal trunk and still be 12 feet above the ground. His team had to crawl, climb, and duck, with clipboards in hand, to cover the few acres they needed for their survey.
"This was an unbelievable natural event," he said. "The thing that surprised me the most is that nobody was killed."
Ottmar found that areas of once-dense forest had as much as 68 tons of dead wood per acre, forming a potentially perfect and nearly endless supply of explosive fuel for a forest fire of devastating proportions.
That is the potential--with another fire season upon us and an estimated 25 million downed trees dried and ready to burn. But what is the likelihood of a destructive or deadly fire? What is being done to prevent it? What are the implications for the wilderness, for area residents, and for the 250,000 annual visitors to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness? Those are questions the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and other agencies and groups have tried to address in the months following last summer's storm.
Shortly after noon on July 4, a wide line of intense, fast-moving thunderstorms--a weather pattern meteorologists call a derecho--swept eastward through the BWCA. The tall column of thunderheads expelled "down bursts" that created straight-line winds, which gusted to more than 90 miles an hour. The storm left a trail of downed timber from just northeast of Ely to the end of the Gunflint Trail, roughly 500,000 acres parallel to the international border.
About 25 campers suffered injuries, including broken backs and necks. During the next several days, rescue crews searched 2,200 campsites and evacuated about 20 campers by air.
Is This Storm Damage Unique?
Similar storms have occurred in the BWCA, as recently as 1988, but they hit much smaller areas. In the Adirondacks, a 1995 derecho damaged about 1 million acres of forest. A 1977 storm damaged more than half of the forest across 350,000 acres of northern Wisconsin. On July 13 and 14, 1995, severe straight-line winds damaged 129,000 acres in a swath from Detroit Lakes to Bemidji, and 113,000 acres in a path south of Grand Rapids. In places, virtually every tree was leveled.
How Much of the Storm Damage Has Been Cleared?
Within days, state and federal work crews piled into the woods with crosscut saws and some chain saws, clearing debris from 1,520 campsites, 551 portages, more than 100 miles of hiking trails, and a similar length of ski and snowmobile trails.
Private landowners set to work too. John Twiest, parts manager for Steve's Sports and Auto in Grand Marais, said the store nearly sold out of chain saws and portable generators in just a few days. Dave Tuttle, owner of Bearskin Lodge on the Gunflint Trail, bought a crane to clear and hoist downed timber from his property without damaging standing vegetation and the forest floor.
DNR and USFS foresters held timber sales to clean up more than 5,000 acres of downed trees on state and federal land outside of the BWCA. An agreement signed with the federal Environmental Quality Council for the last three months of 1999 streamlined the environmental approval process for the large-scale cleanup. Logging continues to reduce fuel for fires that might endanger cabins, homes, and resorts along the Gunflint Trail.
In the BWCA, however, no work has been done, except to clear portages and campsites. No logging is allowed in the federal wilderness area. Any significant work, such as hand clearing of downed wood and prescribed burns, will have to await the completion of an environmental impact statement, probably in spring of 2001, according to the USFS. The delays have frustrated some area residents. "That's disappointing," Tuttle said. "I would have liked to see it start this fall."
What Are the Chances of a Big Forest Fire?
The USFS's Fuels Risk Assessment report is blunt in its assessment of the risk of fire: "It's not a matter of if but when a large significant wildland fire will become a threat to the Gunflint corridor." That also holds true of the entire storm-damaged BWCA.
A 98,000-acre blowdown in Ontario in 1973 might be indicative of the chance of a major fire: By 1974, 80 percent had burned.
According to Ottmar's analysis, the BWCA now has up to four times the normal amount of fuel available. Resinous conifers, especially balsam fir killed in years past by spruce budworm, form tinder. It would be hard to devise more incendiary conditions.
Whether the forest burns this year or next year, whether it goes up in one big ball of flame or in several small fires will depend largely on rainfall--the wild card in this game of chance. The single climatic condition most closely associated with big forest fires of the past is three to eight months of low rainfall.
To reduce fire risk, state and federal foresters will restrict burning during dry weather. Except under low fire danger, the USFS will restrict open fires in the damaged portion of the BWCA. Even these precautions won't eliminate the chance of wildfire: Lightning ignites an estimated 57 percent of fires in the BWCA.
How Bad Could a Fire Be?
According to fire experts working with and for the USFS, a fire under "ideal" conditions could be comparable to the fires at Yellowstone National Park in 1988.
Given the abundant fuel, a fire would soon become, in Forest Service parlance, "plume dominated . . . driven by extreme fire behavior." The blaze would create its own firestorm. Rising heat would form smoke columns reaching 30,000 to 50,000 feet (higher than the path of commercial jets) and create strong indrafts and "fire whirls" along the fire perimeter. The churning winds could carry firebrands aloft and cause spot fires several miles away. Under such conditions, roads and most waterways would not form effective barriers to fire.
Most fires in this region occur with warm winds from the southwest, meaning that a fire starting in the blowdown would travel along the swath of storm damage toward the Gunflint Trail and its 600 private cabins and resorts.
While such a fire would not travel as quickly as so-called crown fires, which spread through treetops, it would spread regardless of wind or weather. Under certain conditions, it would be unstoppable. Under the worst of conditions, the risk to firefighters would be too great to battle the fire from the ground. Aircraft would drop water and fire retardant to slow the fire, giving fire crews and area residents more time to move to safety. According to the Fuels Risk Assessment report, "The most effective strategy may be to treat fuels ahead of the fire front with retardant and water to slow the start and spread of spot fires."
Will the BWCA Recover?
The wilderness will probably weather the blowdown and subsequent fire just fine. After all, said Kevin Proescholdt, executive director of the environmental group Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, forest fire "helped generate the forests we know and love."
According to Lee Frelich, a University of Minnesota researcher with a specialty in forest disturbances, the recent blowdown was far larger than any recorded by General Land Office land surveyors between 1850 and 1900. While it's unclear how widespread blowdowns were in the past, northern forests clearly were subject to wildfire, Frelich said. The evidence is left as fire scars deep within the living tissue of standing trees.
Before effective fire control began in the early 1900s, an average of 1 percent of the forest burned every year, a fire "rotation" of 100 years, according to the USFS. The BWCA has had far fewer fires than in years past. Consequently, few new stands of red pine, eastern white pine, and jack pine have been created, and fire-vulnerable species such as fir have become prevalent, resulting in the spread of spruce budworm.
To reintroduce fire to the forest, the USFS in 1991 adopted a "prescribed natural fire" policy for the BWCA. In other words, when a fire starts in a convenient place, under favorable conditions, without threatening property outside the wilderness, the USFS lets it burn within carefully prescribed parameters. Unfortunately, the conditions are so stringent that few acres have burned--fewer than the USFS intended and far fewer than would have burned before settlement, said Mark Van Every, public service team leader for the USFS.
With the blowdown, the stage has been set to reintroduce fire to tens of thousands of acres. "Ultimately, a natural system is going to right itself. It can happen a little bit at a time, or it can happen all at once as it did last summer," Van Every said.
The effect on the forest will vary, depending on what happens next, Frelich said. Without fire, the blowdown will succeed to late-successional species such as northern white cedar, black spruce, balsam fir, and scattered eastern white pine.
Light to moderate fires will create a seedbed for pine stands, which were once more common in the BWCA.
Exceedingly hot fire will have less salubrious effects, consuming live seeds in the soil and burning thin soils to bedrock. A megafire, Frelich said, could leave open areas of lichens and shrubs and a vast expanse of aspen forest for decades.
Frelich offered this interesting twist: If climate continues to warm over the long haul, open barrens of stunted, fire-tolerant bur and pin oaks could become a common plant community in the BWCA.
What's Being Done to Minimize Risk to Life and Property?
The greatest danger lies in the Gunflint corridor. The trail's last 25 miles have no other road access, setting up the possibility of entrapment in the event of a large fire.
Federal, state, and county officials have coordinated plans to fight fires and evacuate the trail, if necessary. The Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids will stash firefighting supplies--chain saws, protective clothing, radios, tools--near Ely, Grand Marais, and the Gunflint Trail.
Both the DNR and USFS will lease additional aircraft, including a helicopter that can carry a 2,000-gallon water bucket and air tankers that can scoop 1,400 gallons from a lake surface in just eight seconds. The DNR and USFS will clear three helipads near the Gunflint Trail, and they will have access to four more fire engines and crews than usual.
The Legislature earmarked money to build transmitters in Ely and along the Gunflint Trail that would extend the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's broadcast of fire and weather information into the BWCA. (The appropriation was not final at press time.)
To reduce potential fuel, the USFS has proposed to burn or log an additional 5,000 to 7,000 acres in the blowdown area along the Gunflint Trail during the next several years.
Fuel reduction in the BWCA itself will have to wait until the completion of an environmental impact statement. Van Every anticipates that the Forest Service will propose prescribed burning 10,000 acres per year to break up concentrations of downed fuel. Fire crews will not be able to start burning this year. The EIS will probably address issues of where to burn and how much to burn to reduce the risk of a fire spreading outside of the wilderness, he said.
Can I Plan a Trip?
As of this spring, the USFS is allowing canoeists access to the BWCA, said Kris Reichenbach, information coordinator for the storm recovery team. Two-thirds of the BWCA was untouched by the storm and lies outside of the path that a fire in the blowdown is most likely to take. The remainder, with significant storm damage, is also open to recreation. In fact, the volume of reservations is similar to previous years, even in the storm-damaged area.
Visitor orientation materials, such as brochures and a video, have been updated to address the dangers of forest fire. When campers get their permits, they get an up-to-date fire-danger bulletin. In the likelihood the USFS restricts open fires, campers will have to use campstoves.
While canoe travel will continue under all but the worst circumstances, the USFS is concerned about the use of long hiking trails in the blowdown. The lack of escape makes woodland trails dangerous in case of fire. The Kekakabic Trail is impassable.
Outfitters and resort owners hope to encourage visitors despite the wind damage and fire danger. "Look at all the views," exclaimed Dan Baumann, owner of Golden Eagle Lodge and chief of the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department. He said his tourist season will depend on news coverage. "Sensational journalism is what's going to burn us," Baumann said.
Any Tips for Traveling?
- Be careful with fire. Come prepared for a fire ban with a campstove and fuel.
- Avoid trees that look as if they might fall or spring up.
- Don't plan long hiking trips in the blowdown.
- If you don't mind traveling with some modern contrivances, bring a radio, weather radio, or perhaps a cell phone (cell phones don't work in much of the wilderness).
- If you see a fire or otherwise learn that one is approaching, make your escape on large lakes, moving crosswise to the wind direction.
- If a fire overtakes you, paddle to the middle of a large lake. If necessary, put on your life vest, get into the water, and take cover in the air space under your overturned canoe.
- Rely on your own wits and actions to get out of trouble. "We aren't telling people we're going to come in and rescue them," Reichenbach said. "We don't want people to think that." In a fierce fire, crews and even planes might not be able to reach travelers. "However, if something gets started, we will try to locate people.".
Greg Breining is Managing Editor of the Volunteer.