Officials douse BWCA 'burnout' rumor

  • Article by: TONY KENNEDY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 22, 2011 - 9:40 PM

Forest Service admits using an accelerant in early days of Pagami fire but says that helped contain blaze.

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Aerial photo of the Pagami Creek wildfire taken Sept. 13, 2011 in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Photo: Clint Austin, Associated Press

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ELY, MINN. -Firefighters dumped 1,700 gallons of gasoline on the Pagami Creek fire while the blaze was relatively small, the U.S. Forest Service confirmed Thursday, but officials said the so-called burnout was a containment tactic unrelated to the firestorm that scorched a massive swath of wilderness seven days later.

"It certainly didn't cause the big run," said Jim Sanders, supervisor for the Superior National Forest.

At a briefing Thursday, officials for the first time provided a detailed look at how the fire, which started Aug. 18, managed to escape Forest Service control in a matter of hours.

The meeting was held to counter local rumors that the burnout caused or contributed to the fire's terrifying 16-mile run on Sept. 12.

"Some people think that by adding more fire, you make it worse, but that wasn't the case,'" said Jim Sexton, a forest ranger from Cook, Minn., who was involved in the operation.

In the past two weeks, as firefighters from around the country poured into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA), many local residents criticized the Forest Service for its handling of the fire. Many said they did not understand why it wasn't extinguished immediately and wondered if the burnout had contributed to the blaze's intensity.

"There has been talk," said Pat Thums of Isabella, the tiny town southeast of Ely that was at greatest risk. "But it's more like half and half. Some say they never meant to burn us out."

The Forest Service's goal was to create a buffer zone of burned timber that would prevent the fire from moving north into the populated Fernberg corridor on the north side of the BWCA, just a few miles from where lightning started the fire, officials said.

The operation was deemed a success, and the burned-out area was settled down before high winds, high temperatures and low humidity stirred an inferno on Sept. 12 that raced 16 miles south and east in only five hours, Sexton said.

The fire then encroached on the town of Isabella, causing evacuations. In addition, hundreds of BWCA campers were assisted out of the wilderness, including a group on Lake Insula that narrowly escaped on a rescue plane.

The blaze that blackened what is perhaps the most popular canoe route in the BWCA was so big that it created its own weather system. It sent a plume of smoke so large that it disrupted outdoor activity in Milwaukee and was tracked by weather satellite all the way to Ukraine.

"There continues to be a lot of questions about why it wasn't put out," Sanders said.

Actively managed

Contrary to a popular notion that Forest Service policy is to allow wildfires to burn as part of natural forest management, Sanders said every BWCA fire is intensely watched, contained or extinguished as warranted.

"We haven't allowed the fire to do whatever it wanted to do," Sanders said. "We were suppressing it actively and moving it where we could."

The burnout, or "firing operation," was conducted by helicopter over Labor Day weekend. For three days, crews dropped thickened gasoline, also called "jelly gasoline," in order to blacken timber up to the edges of water or bogs to create a natural buffer too wide for burning embers to jump.

Sanders said he directed the fuel dump to keep the blaze from spreading north into the nearby populated Fernberg corridor. In that area, north of Lake One and east of the Kawishiwi River, are several lodges, a Boy Scout camp, private cabins, a Forest Service radio tower and a jackpine plantation owned by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

"I appreciate them saving Lake One," said Frank Udovich, owner of Kawishiwi Lodge, who owns about 20 cabins on there. "I'm glad they did it so it didn't burn my resort."

Unusual path for fire

Sanders and Mark Van Every, a district forest ranger, said they never dreamed the fire would march toward Isabella and escape the southern boundary of the BWCA. Since 1987, none of the other 435 BWCA fires had done so, they said.

Thirty-one barrels of the accelerant, each 55 gallons, was either fired from a suspended torch or spit out of a helicopter via pingpong balls. The gas-filled balls were especially effective on the third and final day of the operation Sept. 5, Sexton said.

Sexton said an Aug. 26 run gave rise to a robust discussion about surrounding the fire with ground crews and creating containment lines to hem it in. But Sanders opted for the burnout strategy because it involved less risk to firefighters and would create a wider buffer.

By Sept. 9, the tactic was deemed a success. Pictures of the area showed very few open flames, Sexton said.

In retrospect, Van Every said he wishes he would have extinguished the fire in its infancy. But forecasts called for rains that never materialized and modeling on Aug. 20 predicted that the worst-case scenario was a 2,500-acre fire in an untraveled area that could benefit from the flame, he said.

Instead, from the end of August to Sept. 11, an extreme drying trend capped by high temperatures, low humidity and atmospheric instability set the stage for what Sanders termed an "unwanted fire event."

"It was the last thing that anyone of us wanted," Sanders said. Said Van Every: "If I had known on Aug. 18 what I know today, we would have put the fire out."

As of Thursday the fire, which burned about 150 square miles, was 30 percent contained. Sanders said that it would take at least a week for it to be fully contained, and it could continue to smolder for months.

Staff writer Josephine Marcotty contributed to this report.

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