Remembering a burning forest, 9 years later

ham lake fire
Picture from MN Firewise

Nine years ago today the eastern section of the Boundary Waters canoe area was raging with fire. 75,000 acres of pristine land was burning wildly out of control. Houses were lost. Lives were risked. Smoke filled the air all the way down to the Twin Cities.

And that is when Sue and Bob McCloughan signed the purchase agreement to buy Bearskin Lodge, in the midst of a fire that threatened to burn down the business.

We spent our days at school with one eye on our students and the other glued to the internet news about the fire. Eventually I just gave up and said “Kids, let’s go off topic and learn something really interesting about fire, that will also explain why your eyes are watering now.” We all watched the changing fire maps and ravaged pictures.

firet trucks ham lake fire
Photo courtesy Gunflint Trail Fire Department

As the fire came closer to Bearskin, Bob & I tried to ascertain what precautions were being taken by Bearskin. The owner wanted the lodge sale to remain a secret from his employees, yet from afar we were wildly concerned that “our” property would burn down and wished we could dare ask the employees what was happening. We called the owner, who said everything is fine, the sprinklers are going, and it’s so little to worry about that we’re flying to the tulip show in Iowa.

We already had enough history with him to think perhaps a second call was in order.  I called Bearskin and got Dee, who would later turn out to be a dear friend. I said I was concerned about the Lodge and wondering what they were doing.  Dee assumed she was speaking to another one of the many worried members of the Bearskin fan club, and explained the preparations to leave. “Are the sprinklers on?” I asked.  It was evident that homes and businesses with the fire suppression sprinklers were surviving.  “Um, no, we, um, won’t be using the sprinklers,” she said. “We don’t think we need them.” She was respectful enough of her current boss that she didn’t say, “No, we won’t be using the sprinklers because the FEMA sprinkler system was never maintained and is now in a thousand broken pieces, and actually we all think our boss believes it is in the best interest of the resort to burn down if there is a fire nearby.”  (She saved those truths for later, in the many re-tellings of the story.)

We weren’t there, so we don’t know precisely what happened next. Over the years we’ve heard many variations of this story and each individual has their own take on what happened; the stories differ greatly, as is always the case during a traumatic event involving many people. In Dee’s version of the story the owners were flying to Pella, Iowa. (Although we later heard they did show up at the lodge at some point, so good.) Most Bearskin employees were evacuated to shelters in Grand Marais under very stressful conditions. They left everything they owned behind, ostensibly to burn down.

airplane minnesota incident command
Picture courtesy Mn IncidentCommand

It was quite disturbing for some of the staff. One of them had a seizure outside the shelter, changing his life for a long time to come. Another just cried and cried. The youngest employee, Adde, rose to the occasion and figured out how to be the adult in the group, a skill she can still muster up regularly in her real life today.

We only heard the stories after the fact. All we knew was that we just put a lot of money down and signed a pile of papers to buy a resort where no preparations were being made to keep the resort from burning down momentarily.

And luckily, it didn’t. A tongue of the fire made its way towards our area, but was kept under control. The physical beauty of our area remained untouched by fire and the cabins and resorts around us continued to be safe. This time. There’s a long history of fires in these big woods and we understand that our turn could come. We hope it’s not soon.

The Ham Lake fires probably started because of one camper. Conditions were right to spread a fire very quickly – as they are while I write this.  The individual who accidentally started the fire was identified, demonized, persecuted, prosecuted, and basically dragged through hell until he eventually took his own life.  There’s a fascinating recounting of his unfortunate story here.

ham_lake_fire_wcredit lee johnson
Photo by Sue Prom

The lesson is please, please, please be careful with fires up here. It’s dry and windy today. There are thousands of branches down on the ground from this winter’s bend-down. Keep fires small.  Some of you folks who like your  pile of wood to be in a 5-foot tall tipi shape when it gets lit are just asking for trouble with those giant fires in this environment. Small, under control, and always watched is the way the pros make a fire. Above all, don’t walk away from the fire. We see this all the time in the campground: raging fire in the pit, nobody around for miles—or even worse, obviously tents full of sleeping people. You can do better than that.

We will have fire on the Gunflint Trail again. We are all a little more prepared for it now, after lessons learned from Ham Lake. Bearskin has invested in an outstanding all – encompassing FEMA  fire suppression sprinkler system. We test it  regularly, keeping it in excellent shape each year. Bob and Quinn are fire department members, who have been well-trained to assist in a fire or a rescue and best of all, they have ARMER fire department radios to be in quick contact in an emergency. And needless to say, if something bad happens Bob & Sue, Quinn & Kate will be here to make sure, first of all, that our sweet staff is safe and un-traumatized and secondly, to do what we must to preserve all your Bearskin memories here.

But let’s avoid another Gunflint Trail fire if we can.  Do your part!

HamLakeFire lee johnson
Photo by Lee Johnson




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