First report on historic BWCA fire details risks to firefighters

  • Article by: TONY KENNEDY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 7, 2011 - 8:23 AM

The blaze started in mid-August and burned more than 145 square miles before firefighting operations ceased in late October.

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The Pagami Creek wildfire burned more than 145 square miles in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota.

Photo: Clint Austin, Associated Press

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In the first of several post-mortems expected on the historic Pagami Creek Fire, the U.S. Forest Service said Tuesday that wildfire crews should not venture onto large bodies of water on extremely windy, gusty days.

In those conditions on Alice Lake, three firefighters capsized a canoe Oct. 16 and were immersed in cold water for 25 minutes before being rescued. Two were treated for hypothermia.

While Tuesday's report does not address firefighting tactics, it reviews the kind of accident Forest Service leaders feared in a prolonged fire operation that relied heavily on float planes and canoes in a remote wilderness.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness blaze started in mid-August and burned more than 145 square miles before firefighting operations ceased in late October. It was the largest wildfire in the history of the Superior National Forest.

More reports later this month will review fire management decisions.

Long after the fire peaked in a spectacular inferno on Sept. 12, crews were still camped inside the wilderness on fire duty. In mid-October, with cooler temperatures prevailing and the fire under control, managers were attempting to remove crews "to reduce personnel exposure to the elements,'' the report said.

On Oct. 16, two officials at the firefighting camp on Alice Lake were to be airlifted by float plane. Winds gusting up to 20 miles per hour had been hampering operations for several days.

The report said the men "had difficulty understanding the urgency'' expressed by their supervisor to fly out on a day when winds were still high, but their communications with the supervisor were limited to concise radio talk and they decided they could handle the conditions.

With a third crew member operating a 19-foot, square-stern canoe, they set out about 11 a.m. to meet the float plane. When they reached a reef 150 feet from shore, waves and swells started to splash over the gunnels. The men threw packs overboard and began to bail water with a hard hat. The boat operator didn't turn back to shore because the wind and waves made it too dangerous to change course, the report said.

When the boat capsized and rolled, the three clung to the end of the vessel and a floating pack. The boat operator had radioed for help, but the float plane was out of sight and the pilot had his radio turned off.

A group of firefighters on Fishdance Lake heard a radio report of an overturned canoe on Alice Lake and radioed for help. Another pilot alerted the waiting float plane to the situation and the pilot maneuvered to make the rescue.

"All crew members had reservations about the high winds and waves that morning,'' the report said. "The message that should be stressed is go with your gut feelings and wait for a calmer day.''

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