Race for renewal in canoe countryThe U.S. Forest Service is clearing the charred ruins of the Pagami Creek fire in order to prepare the area for the summer camping season.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
ON LAKE THREE — The last firefighters are set to fly or canoe out of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness today, leaving any lingering puffs of smoke and flame in the Pagami Creek fire for the first winter snows to snuff.
But even as a massive cleanup continues of 150 miles of fire hose, dozens of water pumps, 200 canoes and other gear used to battle the blaze over the past two months, Forest Service officials already are turning their attention to next summer’s onslaught of campers.
On Wednesday, here on the northwestern corner of the fire, forest officials toured campsites where the fire raged, mostly on Sept. 12 when it covered 75,000 of its 93,000-acre total.
The Lake One access that leads into this part of the wilderness, and this part of the fire, is the third busiest in the BWCAW, and thousands of campers usually paddle these waters each summer.
It’s expected many of those campers will wonder what happened here during the blaze, and the Forest Service is taking steps to assure them the area is still open and worth visiting.
“We wanted people to see what it looks like in here, how the fire burned and what people can expect when they plan their trips for next year,” said Mark Van Every, Kawishiwi District Ranger for the Superior National Forest. “I wanted to see it, too. … I’ve been flying over it for two months but it looks a lot different from the water.”
Even as a few snowflakes fell, wisps of smoke and flame still spring up in spots along the lakeshore, though the fire is no longer considered a threat to spread.
Some islands and peninsulas have burned hard, with only white rock showing amidst charred-black trees and ground. Yet in many areas, the forest is unscathed. A few green aspen leaves still hang on tall trees, and big white pine branches reach for the sky as they have for 200 years.
Many campsites managed to avoid the fire altogether. Of the more than 2,000 campsites across the BWCAW and 114 within the Pagami Creek fire perimeter, only about 50 suffered any fire damage. Of those, Van Every said, fewer than 10 sites burned so hard that they are likely to be closed when campers hit the lakes in May.
At one site, Van Every and Carl Skustad, wilderness manager for the Kawishiwi District, showed how crews already have cut down dangerous “snags,’’ burned trees that could fall on campers. New latrines have been portaged in and fire grates cleared.
“It may not look the same as it did before, but it’s ready to go,” Skustad said. “It’s not the same scenery, but it’s still scenic.”
Down the lake a mile or so another campsite was harder hit. Virtually every tree here is black, and the fiberglass latrine deep in the woods melted in the intense heat.
“All of this happened on Sept. 12. In a couple hours,” Van Every noted, scanning the horizon where black trees with rust-colored dead needles stood, or laid down, as far as he could see.
Still, Van Every thought even this site could re-open next year, safer both for campers and, without too much danger of erosion, for the lake’s ecosystem.
“It may not be someone’s first choice to camp, but I don’t think it would be that bad here by spring,” Skustad said. “When spring green-up comes, there’s going to be a lot growing here.”
Already, new shoots of green grass have sprouted from some burned areas. And Van Every predicts a bonanza of blueberries, mushrooms and wild geraniums as well as grouse, deer and moose that thrive in young forests that sprout in the burned area.
“From an ecological perspective, there’s a lot of benefits to this fire. Fire is what created what we see here,” Van Every said as he inspected jack pine cones that opened in the fire’s heat, spreading seeds for new trees to come.
But it will be up to the canoeing public to decide whether this is a place where they want to spend time, investigating the fire’s path, or whether it’s a place they’ll avoid. Some outfitters said it took four years for visitor patterns to return to normal after the 2007 Ham Lake fire burned 76,000 acres along the Gunflint Trail. Many campers said they avoided the black to stay in the green BWCAW they knew and loved.
“I think it’s an important part of this fire story that people know it didn’t all burn, that it’s not all black but a lot of green interspersed,” Van Every said. “But we won’t know until next year how people will react.”