Eight Forest Service workers faced down death last year in BWCA fire

  • Article by: DAVE HAGE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 31, 2012 - 11:49 PM

Forest Service report details workers' escape and calls for changes.


Sept. 13, 2011: The Pagami Creek wildfire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Photo: Clint Austin, Associated Press

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A dramatic new post-mortem on last summer's Pagami Creek forest fire acknowledges that eight U.S. Forest Service employees feared for their lives when trapped by a surprise surge of the inferno and recommends several changes in fire-management tactics to prevent loss of life in the future.

The report, issued Thursday by the Forest Service, focuses on the events of Sept. 12, when eight employees were closing campsites and evacuating campers as the three-week-old fire spread east across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The eight, who believed they were miles from the front edge of the blaze, were proceeding by canoe along Lake Insula when they heard an approaching roar.

Within minutes, they realized the fire had burst across miles of wilderness and was at their backs; the sky turned black and embers began falling from the sky.

"We're about to get slammed," one radioed to a colleague. "Get somewhere safe."

Two abandoned their canoe on the wind-whipped lake and took refuge in the water; four landed on a nearby island and deployed small, portable fireproof shelters; and two others were rescued by floatplane as the blaze bore down on them, according to the report.

The incident was little reported and little understood at the time, but the Forest Service commissioned a special review as part of a larger analysis of its handling of the fire.

In a 33-page report, a team of Forest Service rangers, engineers and fire experts recommended that the Forest Service:

• Increase use of motorized vessels and aircraft to conduct evacuations even from wilderness areas where such equipment is usually banned because canoes are slow and vulnerable in the violent conditions created by a major fire.

• Improve communication between fire managers and field personnel to "recognize early signs that the situation is changing or the plan is not working."

• Increase use of infrared and aerial mapping of a fire's size and movement.

• Improve detection and communication of violent shifts in wind and weather.

The report notes that the fire provided the first known case of rangers trying to deploy their personal fire shelters in the middle of a deep lake, and it describes in unusually frank language the hazards of that exercise, including high waves, falling cinders and frigid water.

"The judgments you read in the text are not from the review team; they are from people on scene," the report said. "Try to put yourself into the situation to learn from their experience."

Staff writer Tony Kennedy contributed to this report. Dave Hage • 612-673-7108

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