Actions praised in 2011 BWCA wildfire

  • Article by: TONY KENNEDY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 19, 2012 - 7:38 AM

U.S. Forest Service defends use of gasoline to expand fire, says decision-makers made choices that offer lessons for the future.

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Crews dug a fire line on the southern edge of the Pagami Creek fire north of Isabella, Minn., last Sept. 13, just south of the Boundary Waters border.

Photo: Brian Peterson , Star Tribune

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The Pagami Creek wildfire that burned nearly 10 percent of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wildreness last fall was managed precisely in accord with U.S. Forest Service firefighting policy, according to two government post-mortems released Monday.

One of the reports acknowledged "considerable [public] interest and concern'' over fire-management actions, but concluded: " ... the Pagami Creek Fire and its planning and implementation actions should be useful to other Forest Service units as an example of how to plan and implement wildfire management.''

The months-long fire erupted Sept. 12 into a vicious storm of flames, wind and smoke that overran eight people inside the wilderness area, forced evacuations of more than 35 residences on the eastern perimeter of the fire and threatened to burn the town of Isabella.

But a "Regional Decision Review" prepared by Forest Service Fire and Emergency Operations Specialist James Thomas of Milwaukee found no fault with any key decision, including a move early on to drop thousands of gallons of gasoline on the fire. Thomas said that intentional enlargement of the fire created a desired safety zone of blackened forest and was the better of two firefighting options at the time.

The prescribed burn put 2,000 acres of woods on fire in the days leading up to larger, natural runs of the fire. But Thomas said it was better than a labor-intensive option of putting firefighters on the ground and extinguishing the original spotty burn.

In a report last October, the Star Tribune reviewed a series of internal memos that showed the Forest Service repeatedly underestimated the blaze, which continued to outrun expectations for several days. But the reports released Monday said Forest Service leaders were correct to let the fire burn under policies intended to allow natural forces, including fires, to influence the wilderness mix of vegetation. Over the long term, such breaks can stop the spread of wildfires.

When the fire raged on Sept. 12, quadrupling in size and consuming 90,000 acres in an inferno that was unprecedented and totally unexpected, managers were right to shift their emphasis to circle the fire and put it out, the reports said.

"The decision process practiced during the Pagami Creek Fire clearly followed and illustrated how to match decisions, decision analysis and response to changing fire complexity and conditions,'' said a report by Thomas Zimmerman, a manager for the Forest Service's Wildland Fire Management Research, Development and Application Program.

While the reports conclude that fire managers followed policy and used appropriate rationale, Kris Reichenbach, a spokeswoman for the Superior National Forest where the fire occurred, noted that previous reports on certain incidents during the fire do include lessons on how to improve emergency response.

Two weeks ago, a Forest Service report described in detail how six crew members on a mission to evacuate campsites on Insula Lake were caught in the Sept. 12 firestorm without warning from their commanders. All six deployed their small, portable fire shelters as a last resort for protection from showering embers, intense heat and choking smoke.

The incident happened two days after close calls on another lake. Two crew members on Insula ditched their canoe and struggled for their lives for 45 minutes in choppy, bone-chilling water before accidentally floating into an outcropping of rocks.

The report on the entrapments highlighted communication breakdowns between fire managers and Forest Service managers in charge of the evacuations, and it noted that the entrapped crews would have been safer using motorized canoes instead of canoes and paddles.

Tony Kennedy 612-673-4213

  • related content

  • A month after first burning through the wooded edge of Lake Three near Ely, Minn., fire still burned beneath moss last Oct. 19. The Pagami Creek fire had scorched nearly 100,000 acres by then.

  • A charred portion of forest along Lake Three in the BWCA was visible to the rear as Carl Skustad, zone wilderness manager for the U.S. Forest Service, paddled near Ely last Oct. 19.

  • U.S. Forest Service employees led a news media canoe tour to inspect wildfire damage near Ely, Minn., late last October.

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