Signs of new life in BWCA ashes

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 20, 2011 - 6:45 AM

Despite the ravages of the Pagami Creek fire, greenery abounds, old-growth and new.

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ELY, MINN. - The biggest forest fire in Minnesota in half a century has left the most popular region of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area black and blue and green.

Two months after lightning touched off a small blaze that later exploded into a 145-square-mile burn and a $21 million firefight, the route through Lakes One, Two and Three east of Ely is lined with stretches of blackened trees, uniform as teeth on a comb.

But the view across any lake, even from charred campsites, is still dominated by the green forest that has inspired millions of canoeists for decades.

U.S. Forest Service officials, who took members of the news media on a paddling tour through the area Wednesday, call the pattern a "mosaic" that, come spring, will be bursting with new greenery and wildlife, and a few new dangers.

Already, some recovery is evident, with new, green grasses sprouting among charred, fallen logs. Wolf scat lay along a portage trail and freshly gnawed tree branches were piled atop a beaver lodge at the edge of a burned area. A bald eagle scouted for fish most of the morning from a treetop along Lake Three.

The last of an army of ground firefighters who have been camping in 14-day stretches in the woods will be pulling out this week, and firefighters in the southeast corner who've been tackling the blaze day-to-day should finish their work as well, said Forest Service district ranger Mark Van Every. The fire, which at its peak was being battled by nearly 1,000 firefighters, was considered more than 91 percent contained earlier this week. It will be patrolled and attacked, if necessary, by air, until the first snows douse it for good.

To the west, a lightning-induced fire in Voyageurs National Park remained at about 300 acres in size earlier this week. Officials indicated they did not expect it to spread and that it also would burn until snow falls.

'Snags' out, biffies in

Only about five campsites -- of more than 2,000 in the BWCA and of the 51 listed as suffering "severe" damage from the fire that began Aug. 18 near Pagami Creek-- might remain closed next year, Van Every said. The rest will be cleared this fall of "snags" -- trees with roots burned so badly that they could topple onto campers. Another key project is underway: "We're replacing latrines already," Van Every said.

But paddlers also will be warned not to cruise close to shore along burned stretches. Those won't be cleared, leaving many trees that could fall into the water, added Forest Service wilderness zone manager Carl Skustad.

Areas east of the most popular routes out of Lake One saw some more damage, as the fire burned more intensely there during its spectacular, wind-driven expansion from 14,000 acres, or nearly 22 square miles, to 92,800 acres on Sept. 12. But the mix of burned and healthy areas exists there, too: The mosaic pattern is common in forest fires, Van Every said.

The week that the fire exploded, half of all the paddling permits issued for the BWCA were for the Lake One entry. The area is popular because it leads to a route with short portages, numerous island campsites and stands of large trees, some of which escaped logging in the first half of the last century.

Outfitters confident

Outfitters seem generally confident that paddlers who might be discouraged by damage to a landscape they've long found thrilling will be replaced by others curious to see the fire's aftermath. Area outfitters will get a look themselves Monday on a tour with forestry officials.

Zack Imes, operations manager at Wilderness Outfitters in Ely, said he's eager to be able to "give customers the first honest sense of what it looks like."

Lee Frelich, director of the University of Minnesota Center for Forest Ecology, said visitors next spring will encounter a landscape that will combine delicate beauty with risks. Blueberry and raspberry shrubs, often the first to repopulate a burned forest, should flourish. A small magenta flower known as Bicknell's geranium may sprout near Seagull Lake, where its seeds have been buried following fires through the years -- some for more than two centuries, he said. Young jackpine, whose seeds are released by fire, might be several inches tall late next season.

But the fire will also have burned sharp tips onto branches of some conifers, he said.

In the burned areas, it could be 10 to 15 years before visitors once again walk under canopies of trees, so familiar in the forest, Frelich added. But the trees themselves could be different, with more maple or oak. "It could take several decades to look as it did before the fire," he said. "But with all we know about climate change, it may never."

The Pagami Creek fire area covered about 145 square miles, roughly 9.2 percent of the entire BWCA. It burned down one structure -- a remote Minnesota DNR cabin. For BWCA neighbors, the ebbing of the fire has allowed life to get back to normal.

Mark Wilhelmson of Duluth returned Tuesday to the cabin he and his wife, Elizabeth, share near Isabella, bringing some of the valuables they hurriedly removed more than four weeks ago. As a fire glowed again in the corner woodstove, Wilhelmson began refurnishing the cabin and yard with emblems of the family heritage: wedding dishes, cabin diaries, the cedar canoe handmade by his brother, his father's 50-year-old, three-horsepower Johnson outboard motor, the cedar chest he built, bags of fabric that Elizabeth might make into quilts.

Since they cleared out in mid-September, Wilhelmson said he'd been tracking conditions on the Forest Service website and by keeping in touch with a neighbor who'd stayed.

Next year, he added, he's sure he'll be shocked to see the effects of the fire along the Kawishiwi River, where the family canoes, and on some of the forest roads where he rides a mountain bike.

"On the plus side, the blueberries are going to be great," he said. "This helps regenerate the forest."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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