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Pagami Creek Fire in the BWCA near entry points on Lake One is now 30% contained – Sept. 21, 2011

Pagami Creek Fire had Ely Residents and Visitors Concerned about Fire

The Pagami Creek Fires had burned for over three weeks, and the small fire burning near Lake Two was not deemed much of a threat. The Pagami Creek Fire was of such a small nature, that the Forest Service decided to help it along by dropping a load of jellied gasoline on the smoldering blaze in order to help the fire do its work in a difficult to burn spruce swamp. That was when nature conspired to surprise the weather experts, and warm, windy, and very dry conditions caused the fire to explode into the largest fire in Minnesota since 1918. All of a sudden, the fire marched out of the wilderness area and headed into Superior National Forest proper like an avenging angel. All of the modern tools available to us were employed by the Forest Service to try to stop the Pagami Creek Fire from threatening structures on the fringe of the wilderness area.

Since then the fire has garnered much interest around the nation, as the smoke from the fire reached as far south as Chicago. Many people thought that Ely and the entire Boundary Waters were on fire, but thus far the conflagration has burned over one hundred thousand acres, and only one government owned cabin on Insula Lake has been lost. Much work remains to be done before the fire is brought under control and millions of dollars will be spent to accomplish the task of extinguishing the blaze. You can bet the debate on using fire to manage the area will garner considerable debate long after the Pagami Creek Fire has been extinguished. Keep reading the Ely Buzz, and we will keep you informed on the latest information and the historic implications of the Pagami Creek Fire.

One of the things you get used to when you live in a place like Ely are forest fires. That was one of the reasons not many people paid much attention when a lightening strike started a wild fire between Lake Two and Clearwater Lake on August 18th of this year. The fire was burning in the Boundary Waters Wilderness not far from one of the busiest Boundary Waters entry points on Lake One at the end of the Fernberg Road. The Fernberg was a one lane gravel road that was built in the late 1920’s for the sole purpose of giving better access to the Superior National Forest. It was built for the sole purpose of providing better fire suppression. Later on when tourism became more important to the local economy, the road was widened in the 1960’s to its present condition to better accommodate the increased traffic.

When the Fernberg and Echo Trail were built, the Superior National Forest was a ten million acre government created forest reserve conceived to prevent anyone from exploiting our timber lands the way the large logging companies did to Northeastern Minnesota from the mid 1890’s to the early 1920’s. When Gifford Pinchot sent foresters to survey the newly created national forest, just after the turn of the twentieth century, they reported back to Pinchot that there was very little forest left to manage. It was almost all logged off. Pinchot and the Forest Service were determined that any future logging operations in any U.S. National Forest would be done under government supervision and managed as a sustainable crop.

In order to protect the forest from fire, lookout towers were built and staffed during the summer season. They were built on high hills and ridges which gave them a good look at the surrounding country.

Ely area Fire Towers were common years ago

Fire Towers in Ely looked like this.

One of these towers was built on a large hill that was called the Fernberg. Before the Fernberg Road was built, the Fernberg Lookout was supplied by canoeing up the Kawishiwi River. All of the material needed at the Fernberg Tower and Cabin traveled up the river and across six portages. It was a lot of work to keep the Fernberg Lookout supplied, and what was even worse, if a fire was sighted it took time for the attendant to get word back to Ely in order to muster forces to battle the fire. Fire suppression became much more efficient when the Fernberg Road and Echo Trail were built to help protect a valuable national resource.

After World War Two, Fire Towers were gradually phased out and replaced by airplanes. The airplanes offered a much better service, because they were not fixed to any one position, so they gave a much more comprehensive overview of the entire national forest. Today there are only a few old abandoned towers left in the area to remind people how we once monitored fire in the Superior National Forest, and we still rely on airplanes to spot fires in the national forest today.

In 1973 Congress created the Boundary Waters Wilderness Area. They took one point one million acres of land from the Superior National Forest and gave it special designation as the only true wilderness east of the Mississippi River. It was the first time in our nation’s history where the spiritual and ascetic value of national forest land was deemed more valuable to America than the harvesting of either timber or mineral resources.

This new status of wilderness meant that the land set aside could no longer be managed by conventional means like logging. The Forest Service was given the task of managing the land set apart by natural methods. The first big test of this wilderness ethic was the big wind that blew down millions of trees on July 4th, 1999. According to experts, the wind was a once in a thousand year event that altered the face of a large portion of the wilderness area, and many local people living close to the blow down area were fearful that the once in a thousand year wind would eventually lead to a catastrophic forest fire. Many people called for a special moratorium that would allow logging in the area, but in order to do this, Congressional action would be required. The Forest Service stuck to the mandate, and since then the blow down area has been reduced by a number of controlled burns during the years since 1999. Thus far the blow down area hasn’t gone up in flames, but the Forest Service still keeps a close watch on the area.

Instead of managing the area by logging it off, harvesting the timber, and then reforesting, the Forest Service uses fire to alter the conditions in the wilderness area. In most instances the management fires have been controlled burns essentially to get rid of a build up of unwanted fuels and to regenerate the area. Once in a while nature takes a hand and starts a fire all on her own, and then the Forest Service makes a decision on how such natural fires are going to be handled. The Pagami Creek Fire is one of those natural fires that was ignited by a lightening strike. By: Iron Mike Hillman

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