The pictures of the smoky plume emanating from the Pagami Creek fire have dominated the news for the last few days. The fire is big news as far away as Milwaukee and Chicago, because smoke and ash are blowing that way. Canoeists are having to frantically change their trip permits because their planned routes are closed. Consequently, everyone assumes Bearskin Lodge will burn down soon.
The fire is one of the worst fires in Minnesota history. At this point it is bigger than the Ham Lake fire of 2007. But (and yes, this sounds cynical) if you’re not in it, everyone loves a big fire. It’s a good news story, so every media outlet is making the most of it. As a result, they’ve caused a lot of worry and confusion by overplaying and under-explaining what is occurring.
The BWCA wilderness covers a huge area. The fire is in the western section of the BWCA, around Ely. It has consumed 100,000 acres of land in one of the most well-used, beloved areas of the BWCA. It’s an erratic, fast-moving fire that has been difficult to control. The forest service has closed a great deal of the BWCA, but they did so to prevent canoeists from heading into the area of the fire.
As soon as the forest service closed entry points west of the Gunflint Trail, people started to assume that area was burning. Those entry points are closed to keep people from taking trips that would lead them towards the fire area; they are not closed because the fire is reaching the Gunflint Trail. Sometimes people have to be protected from their own bad choices. The nearest point of the fire is actually 35 to 40 miles away from the Gunflint Trail.
The Cavity Lake and Ham Lake fires on this end of the BWCA taught us that anything can happen with a wildfire. We would never say with full assurance that the Ely fire couldn’t possibly reach us. But it would be a very improbable scenario. Ash and sparks from the fire could start a new fire almost anywhere, but the risk of the current fire burning all the way to the Gunflint Trail is minimal.
We had rainstorms Monday that were actually caused by the fire. The storms brought down lots of falling ash. The lake is ringed with little fragments of burned pine needles, which is pretty interesting. But we have had very little smoke here. It’s worse in Chicago!
At an informational meeting today, the forest service reported that the fire did not grow appreciably yesterday or today. The SE edge, the area of concern for our location, is reported to be very stable. They have 250 firefighters as well as a large deployment of water carrying airplanes and helicopters working long hours at the site. Cooler temps and higher humidity have helped diminish the fire’s growth.
The fact that it is, um, snowing at the moment may also slow down the burn. That should give the news media something else to talk about.