Anger builds over wait to take on BWCA fire

  • Article by: BAIRD HELGESON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 16, 2011 - 11:29 AM

The blaze that has consumed more than 156 square miles has reignited long-simmering local anger with a federal policy to let fires in the national wilderness area burn unless they threaten people or property.

ISABELLA, MINN. - Larry Schanno walked out of a community meeting with fire officials Thursday morning and began tearing up.

The fire churning through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness already has decimated the lush and leafy area where he played as a child. Now it threatens his home.

"What's really irritating is they let it burn for 11 days when they could have put it out," said Schanno, 63, a retired logger. "I don't understand the politics, but if there's a fire, they should fight the fire."

The blaze that has consumed more than 156 square miles has reignited long-simmering anger here with a federal policy to let fires in the national wilderness area burn unless they threaten people or property.

Light winds and cooler, wetter weather kept the flames from advancing more than about a quarter mile Thursday, but with firefighters bracing for warmer and windier weather this weekend, the signs of tension were everywhere.

Fire officials worry that if the fire heads north, deeper into the wilderness area, it will encounter millions of tons of fuel from trees that fell to the 1999 blowdown. If it rushes south, it could be on the doorstep of Isabella.

In the Knotted Pine tavern, conversation quickly turned to anger that the federal government created what people called a tinderbox when it didn't let loggers clear downed trees after the 1999 event.

In community meetings, residents voiced exasperation that the fire, which began Aug. 18 at Pagami Creek with a lightning strike and burned inconsequentially until strong northwest winds propelled it south and east, was allowed to become so big and dangerous.

U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack weighed in Thursday, vowing to change federal law so firefighters can extinguish blazes in the federally protected wilderness area right away.

He said he cannot believe forest officials did nothing until the fire blew up into a blaze that now requires a multimillion-dollar effort to extinguish, drawing in top firefighters from across the nation. He said it highlights the ridiculousness of the "let-it-burn" policy in the wilderness area.

"It's nuts," said Cravaack, a Republican who represents the area in Congress.

Forest management tightrope

Forest management has long been in the cross hairs of political and environmental battles, in Minnesota and nationwide.

Tim Sexton, Superior National Forest's LaCroix District ranger in Cook, said Thursday that some fires are a natural, healthy way to clean out brush and restore harmony to the area. But he added that officials don't just let fires burn, even in the Boundary Waters. They are allowed to burn only when it's determined they pose no risk to people and property, he said.

"We are not in the business in taking risks with public land," Sexton said. "We do everything we can to keep it off of private lands."

He said if they didn't allow some fires, the landscape of the BWCA would change and some of the most cherished natural amenities would be choked out by other species. "In some cases, we allow fire to manage vegetation," he said. "In the wilderness, we don't have any process to replicate fire."

Fire managers used Thursday's respite to train 100 elite firefighters from other states who arrived to help battle the blaze. This fire presents a challenge for many of them, who are more accustomed to working in mountainous or warmer climates.

Despite the fire's spread, no injuries or serious property damage had been reported as of Thursday.

Still, fire managers could tell Isabella residents were frustrated and angry.

"I know you are not happy we are here," Bob Sandman, a new deputy incident commander, told residents as he tried to calm nerves Thursday morning. "But we are happy to be here."

Some residents say the fire, while not in the worst of the blowdown area, is the ultimate I told you so. "We have had no say in how to run this area, an area we've loved, lived on and raised our families on," Schanno said. "We have had to live at the whims of others."

Memories of 1960s-era battles

Many residents are still stinging from when the Boundary Waters was created in the mid-1960s. The government closed roads, ended logging and eventually banned motorized vehicles. Many who lived in the area lost their jobs and left, some moving to nearby Isabella.

Politicians in the area have long had a complex relationship with the Boundary Waters.

State Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said he toyed with trying to push the federal government to relax logging restrictions after the blowdown, but the state has no say in managing the area and he didn't want to face a backlash from environmentalists.

Last year, Ely Mayor Roger Skraba was sentenced for illegally riding a snowmobile in the area, entering without a permit and stealing a toilet.

Rep. David Dill, a leading DFL voice on environmental policy, came to this conclusion: "It's best to accept it and try to do our best with it."

Forest officials know the tightrope they have to walk and are doing all they can to instill confidence in residents. They admitted things got off to a rocky start when they held an earlier community meeting in Isabella. Officials lacked the latest information, and residents said fire officials seemed baffled by the blaze's sudden surge. One resident whose home was threatened stood up: "Are you going to fight it, or just pretend to fight it?" he asked.

"It was chaotic," said John Wytanis, Superior National Forest district ranger in Tofte.

But by Thursday, forest fire managers returned with new maps, a detailed explanation of their plan and assurances that the best firefighters in the country were on the job.

"We are still not out of the woods yet," Wytanis cautioned. "Just give us some time."

Baird Helgeson • 651-222-1288

FOR MORE INFORMATION

•For up-to-the-minute information on BWCA entry points, go to www.inciweb.org/incident/2534

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