In the acknowledgments of his riveting account of the Ham Lake Fire of 2007, Cary Griffith freely admits that he was naïve about the personal aspect of wildfires.
While many of the dozens of the people he interviewed, from firefighters to residents, shared their stories, a “large minority” ignored or refused his requests, politely explaining “that the impact from the fire was so traumatic they would rather not relive it.”
“Gunflint Burning” is a cautionary tale for anyone who’s kindled a warming blaze while camping.
But it’s also about the consequences of carelessness, the depth of community, the value of knife-edge coordination and — perhaps most of all — how an expanse of lakes and rocks and trees in northernmost Minnesota can inspire people to work past exhaustion to save it.
The Ham Lake Fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was almost bound to happen that spring. The region was bone-dry. Then a weather system spawned strong, incessant winds.
Yet the fire needn’t have happened. Based on interviews and investigators’ reports, Griffith re-creates the behavior of one camper, Stephen Posniak, who not only disregarded rules against burning paper, but committed the more serious sin of inattention.
“Gunflint Burning” is unexpectedly compelling, given that it’s mostly a dispassionate account of logistics. The text is full of acronyms. An incident commander is an IC; an operations section chief is an OSC. It’s wonky, but also a credible way to tell the story.
The day-by-day account of the 11-day blaze tracks how volunteer firefighters faced the biggest fire of their lives, and the roles played by meteorologists, sprinkler subcontractors, resort owners, pilots and more.
Griffith conveys the inexorable nature of fire and how those fighting it cannot afford a moment’s disregard. His description of how “ping-pong balls” of flammable potassium permanganate must be dropped with exquisite precision to create backfires is eye-opening.
Yet there also are highly personal stories, such as how Bob Monehan stayed to defend his cabin, defying evacuation orders.
“The deputy stared at him, then said, ‘Is your boat gassed up and ready, in case you need to make a run for it?’
“Bob nodded. ‘Yeah,’ he said.
“The deputy let out an anxious sigh, reached for his friend’s hand, shook it, and said goodbye.”
This exchange is early in the book, but sets the stage for the book’s seminal theme: This wildfire, which became one of Minnesota’s largest ever, was fought by friends. Everyone knows everyone on the Gunflint Trail. Firefighters and Forest Service folks along the North Shore know each other. Outfitters know their campers.
And, in a way, they all regard the wilderness along the Gunflint as their companion. More than 75,500 acres were blackened. Old growth burned. Wildlife perished. Cabins full of memories became ash.
Griffith ends with how Posniak eventually was charged with a three-count indictment, leading to another sobering consequence of his inattention. Posniak committed suicide in December of 2008.
You can read about the Ham Lake Fire as history. But there’s little doubt that a reader’s familiarity with the Gunflint Trail deepens the emotions, enabling you to see one of the final scenes when the DNR’s Tom Lynch, heading south, and Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk, going north, meet.
Through rolled-down windows, they stare at each other, stunned by their sooty surroundings, exhausted, yet wordlessly aware that they had done something momentous. Then they drive on.
Kim Ode is a Star Tribune features writer. On Twitter: @Odewrites
Gunflint Burning: Fire in the Boundary Waters
By: Cary J. Griffith.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 324 pages, $25.95.
Events: 7 p.m. May 8, Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul; 6:30 p.m. May 10, Scout & Morgan Books, Cambridge, Minn.; 7 p.m. May 23, Subtext Books, 6 W. 5th St., St. Paul.