10 years ago today: Ham Lake Fire

Ten years ago today an ember blew out of a fire a camper left at Ham Lake in northeast Minnesota and started a blaze that burned 75,000 acres in the Superior National Forest, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park across the Canadian border. A year later Stephen Posniak, the man indicted as being responsible for the fire, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home. The suicide came a day after a federal magistrate denied motions challenging key aspects of the charges filed.

Below is an article about the fire released by the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center. All of these photos of the Ham Lake Fire are from their archives.

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Recollections: Tenth anniversary of the Ham Lake Fire

Ten years ago on May 5 Ham Lake residents in northeastern Minnesota watched embers from a small campfire rage into a 75,000-acre inferno destroying structures, costing about $10 million and burning more than 25-square miles. In a recent Minnesota Public Radio interview residents called it the “devil fire” because it blew quickly out of control due to erratic winds and unusual tinder dry conditions. The fire, one of Minnesota’s largest, originated along a 60-mile, two-lane, dead-end road surrounded by the Boundary Canoe Area Wilderness, the Superior National Forest and eventually across the Canadian border.

“We didn’t expect that type of fire activity at that time of year. Often there is still snowpack,” said Tom Lynch, an initial attack responder and 30-year wildland firefighter. “When we got the call most of us were in our civilian clothes. We grabbed what we could and hurried up there,” said Lynch, who recalls prioritizing kayak and canoe removal in the midst of structure protection decisions.

Ham Lake Fire 2007 Minnesota

Strong, ever-changing winds caused rapid, unpredictable growth of the fire. A 30,000-foot smoke plume was visible from hundreds of surrounding cabins, businesses, camps and residences. In the end, about 133 structures, an outfitting business and 61 residences were destroyed. It could have been worse. There were no fatalities.

“The Ham Lake Fire was human-caused and ignited near the Gunflint Trail area of the Superior National Forest,” said Kris Reichenbach, U.S. Forest Service public affairs officer. “The fire spread quickly in areas of extreme fuel loading with dead and downed timber.”

Heavy fuels resulted from a severe 90-mph windstorm in 1999 that downed nearly 500,000 acres of forested land. Seven years later, the lightning-ignited Cavity Lake Fire burned more than 31,500 acres directly west of the 2007 Ham Lake Fire area. A Superior National Forest report indicated that “when the fire reached large prescribed fire treated areas, it was extinguished and became readily suppressed with direct attack. Treatments were concentrated to the west of the Gunflint Trail wildland-urban interface area, resulting in stopping the fire’s progression toward homes.”

Ham Lake Fire 2007 Minnesota

At one time during the weeklong incident, more than 1,000 U.S., Canadian and Minnesota Incident Command System (MNICS) personnel joined forces. The Gunflint Volunteer Fire Department was instrumental in the initial attack phase. Nearly two dozen Minnesota fire departments were involved as unified command came together.

Aside from the magnitude and intensity of the Ham Lake Fire, it became a lessons learned instructional aid. More than 100 homeowners along the Gunflint Trail installed sprinkler systems after the 1999 blow down due to increased fire danger. Estimates are that the sprinklers saved at least 50 structures.

“The big thing that stood out was that it was a super demonstration of proactively planning, preparing and practicing,” said Daria Day, a lead public information officer who was first on the fire. The implementation of those sprinklers saved a lot of structures. It was a very good example of community preparedness and wildfire prevention.”

Ham Lake Fire 2007 Minnesota

Harrowing story of wilderness rangers fleeing in canoes from a wildfire

They paddled furiously through two to three-foot waves in the smoke-created darkness looking for a fire shelter deployment site.

This video is a must-see.

It is the enthralling story of how six U.S. Forest Service employees had near misses and entrapments in 2011 on the Pagami Creek Fire within the Superior National Forest in Minnesota.

The video is well done, with the wilderness rangers telling in their own words, very eloquently, how they fled in their canoes from the fire that had been managed, rather than suppressed, for 25 days, until it ran 16 miles on September 12, eventually consuming over 92,000 acres of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. If the video was a book I’d say you would not be able to put it down.

It tells how the USFS employees were caught out in front of the rapidly spreading fire in canoes while trying to evacuate the recreating public from the area. At one point when they were fleeing the fire, the smoke was so thick they could not see the fronts of their canoes.

Pagami Creek Fir
Pagami Creek Fire. USFS photo.

Two people bailed out of a canoe to take refuge in the cold water, deploying a single fire shelter over their heads as they floated away from the canoe, suspended by their life jackets.

Two others were flown out at the last minute by a float plane when the pilot somehow found a hole in the smoke and was able to find them, land on the lake, and extract them. (These two were not mentioned in the video.)

Four people paddled furiously in the strong winds, dense smoke, darkness, and two to three-foot waves. Unable to find a fire shelter deployment site on the shore and heavily forested islands, the four finally located a small, one-eighth acre barren island where they climbed inside their shelters as they were being pounded with burning embers.

You have to watch this video.

There is an excellent facilitated learning analysis about this incident.

We have written many articles about the Pagami Fire.

Report released on escaped prescribed fire in northern Minnesota

The fire burned 1,008 acres on the Superior National Forest.

Above: Photo of the Foss Lake Fire, from the report.

A report has been released for a prescribed fire that escaped on May 19, 2016 and burned an unexpected 1,008 acres 10 miles west of Ely, Minnesota. The U.S. Forest Service had intended to burn 78 acres, but extremely dry conditions and winds pushed a spot fire beyond the capabilities of the Hotshot crew and the engine initially assigned to the project. The fire danger index for the Energy Release Component at the time was setting 20-year maximums.

Foss Lake Fire map
The perimeter of the planned prescribed fire is outlined in black, in the gray shaded area. The escaped area is in red.

You can read the entire report here, but below are highlights:

  • Some of the firefighting resources listed as contingency forces in the burn plan were national resources not committed to the prescribed fire and were assigned to other fires when needed on the escape.
  • According to a spot weather forecast the conditions that morning were at the hot end of the prescription and in the afternoon may go out of prescription. There was a discussion about possibly having to pause ignition for a period of time in the afternoon.
  • The test fire began at 11:40 a.m. Soon thereafter the primary ignition began.
  • Within 40 minutes of starting the test fire spot fires began to occur near the fireline, but they were suppressed. At 12:50 p.m. a larger spot fire, 1/4 to 1/2 acre, was discovered 100 yards north of the main burn by firefighters patrolling in a canoe. The firing boss ordered the igniters to slow down.
  • When the larger spot fire occurred, firefighters installed a hose lay from a river to the site but were not able to start a pump to supply the water. A replacement pump that had been working in another area that day was brought in but it also refused to run.
  • At 12:53 p.m. a water-scooping Beaver air tanker that could carry up to 130 gallons of water was requested by the Zone Fire Management Officer (ZFMO) who was at the site, and 11 minutes later he asked for a Type 3 helicopter.
  • At 1:41 p.m. personnel on the fire declined offers or suggestions for “heavy aircraft” and also a Type 1 helicopter that had become available.
  • Between 1:59 p.m. and 2:26 p.m. personnel on the fire requested the Type 1 helicopter, air attack, two 20-person crews, a CL-415 scooping air tanker, and two large air tankers.
  • At 2:07 p.m. the Burn Boss declared the escaped fire to be a wildfire and began shutting down the original prescribed fire.
  • At approximately 1700 a Type 2 Incident Management Team was ordered for the escaped wildfire, which was then several hundred acres in size.
  • At 10:09 p.m. all personnel on the prescribed and escaped fires were released and returned to Ely.

Our original report on the escaped prescribed fire last May.

Charges filed after crash that killed two firefighters

Nine firefighters traveling in a second crew carrier were stopped 30 miles down the highway, restrained with zip ties, and questioned individually.

Michael Allen Johnson
Michael Allen Johnson. Anoka County jail photo.

(Originally published at 7:22 a.m. MDT August 29. Updated at 2:52 p.m August 30, 2016)

The driver of the crew carrier that crashed August 27 near Blaine, Minnesota killing two firefighters has been charged with a crime. Michael Allen Johnson, 28, was arrested the day of the accident and booked into Anoka County jail. He was charged with two counts of criminal vehicular homicide operating a motor vehicle in a grossly negligent manner.

The two deceased firefighters were identified Sunday by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community as James F. Shelifoe, Jr., 23, of Baraga Michigan, and Alan J. Swartz, 25, of Baraga, Michigan.

Monday evening WLUC reported more information about Mr. Johnson based on a copy of the criminal complaint. Here are some of the key points according to their article and an AP report:

  • The crash occurred at approximately 3 p.m. CST on Saturday, August 27.
  • Mr. Johnson said he woke up on Friday, August 26th, at approximately 11:00 a.m. and had not slept since then at the time of the crash, aside from a forty-five minute nap during the early morning hours of August 27th.
  • He said he had used marijuana hours before the crash.
  • He admitted to having used cocaine two days earlier. (Blood tests are pending.)
  • Officers stated that Mr. Johnson appeared impaired and was acting combative at the scene of the accident.
  • He told investigators he fell asleep while driving and woke up to a passenger yelling. He veered off the right side of the road, overcorrected to the left, and struck the cable barrier between the southbound and northbound lanes of the freeway.

In the video above the reporter says:

Two hours after the crash a second Beartown truck carrying nine more firefighters was stopped in Bloomington. Their hands restrained behind their backs they sat along a curb, individually questioned, and left on their way.

Bloomington is about 30 miles from Blaine, Minnesota where the crash occurred.

crash scene firefighters
The crash scene. From the WCCO video.

ABC News reported that a witness saw the truck drive past him at about 80 to 90 mph in a 70 mph zone shortly before the crash, according to the complaint.

The passenger compartment on the crew carrier separated from the truck’s chassis when the vehicle rolled.

Seven firefighters in the crew carrier were injured, including Mr. Johnson. All are expected to recover. The Minnesota State Patrol said in a statement:

The truck was southbound on I-35W near 95th Avenue. The truck left the roadway for an unknown reason, struck the median cable barriers, and rolled. A total of nine people were in the vehicle.

There were 11 other firefighters in two other vehicles traveling in the convoy but the truck that crashed had become separated from the other two. All are part of the Beartown Fire Crew from the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community in the upper Peninsula of Michigan. The firefighters were en route to the Box Canyon Fire in Utah.

Two wildland firefighters killed in Minnesota vehicle accident

(Originally published at 10:17 p.m. MDT August 27, 2017. Updated at 11:05 p.m. MDT August 28, 2016)

(UPDATE: the driver of the firefighters’ truck has been charged with a crime.)

Two firefighters with a Type 2 hand crew were killed in a traffic accident Saturday August 27 near Blaine, Minnesota. The Minnesota Incident Command System verified that the firefighters were part of the Beartown Fire Crew from the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community in the upper Peninsula of Michigan that was en route to the Box Canyon Fire in Utah.

The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community confirmed the tragic accident:

The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community learned this evening that our Beartown Firefighting crew was involved in a tragic traffic accident. Two of our fire fighters were killed and several others were severely injured. Our hearts are broken and our prayers are with the family members and those injured.

The seven other firefighters in the crew carrier that were injured in the crash are expected to recover.

The two deceased firefighters were identified Sunday by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community as James F. Shelifoe, Jr., 23, of Baraga Michigan, and Alan J. Swartz, 25, of Baraga, Michigan.

The Minnesota State Patrol said in a statement:

The truck was southbound on I-35W near 95th Avenue. The truck left the roadway for an unknown reason, struck the median cable barriers, and rolled. A total of nine people were in the vehicle.

There were 11 other firefighters en route to the same fire. They were traveling in a convoy but had become separated.

According to Minnesota Department of Transportation, that section of the Interstate was closed in both directions for about four hours after the accident.

The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community in cooperation with the Bureau of Indian Affairs manages the Beartown Firefighters Type 2 hand crew. It is based out of Baraga, Michigan and is available for dispatch locally as well as nation-wide.

Our sincere condolences go out to the family, coworkers, and friends of the injured and deceased firefighters.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Tom.

Minnesota: Prescribed fire escapes west of Ely

(UPDATED at 7:35 p.m. CDT May 22, 2016)

Foss Lake Fire mapOn Saturday the U.S. Forest Service reported that better mapping showed that the Foss Lake Fire, that escaped from a prescribed fire in northeast Minnesota, had not burned 1,000 acres as previously reported, but only 440 acres. On Sunday morning their update said it was 1,008 acres, and included this information:

There was little growth on the fire yesterday. Accurate mapping data from handheld and aircraft GPS units resulted in the large increase in acreage.

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(UPDATED at 10:08 CDT May 21, 2016)

Foss Lake Fire map
The Foss Lake Fire ran for two miles with a wind out of the south until it hit Crab Lake.

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(UPDATED at 11 p.m. CDT May 20, 2016)

The U.S. Forest Service has provided more details about the escaped prescribed fire 15 miles west of Ely, Minnesota. Better mapping shows that it has burned approximately 440 acres rather than 1,000 from the earlier estimate.

From the Superior National Forest at about 10 p.m. CDT on Friday:

The fire is burning north within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

Crews made good progress today, directly attacking the fire on its north, east, and west sides. Aircraft dropped fire retardant along the east side of the fire and water on the west side.

Background: The Foss Lake Fire began on May 19 as a prescribed fire to reduce surface and ladder fuels, to enhance wildlife habitat, and to encourage jack pine regeneration. Shortly after ignition, an unpredicted change in weather conditions brought higher winds, warmer temperatures, and lower relative humidity. A spot fire north of the control line escaped containment and the wind-driven fire spread to the north. Aircraft that were on standby responded quickly and, with the work of ground crews, were able to slow the fire’s eastward spread with water and retardant drops, protecting the west and north sides of Burntside Lake. The fire spread north to Crab Lake in the BWCAW. There was no fire growth to the south.

Message: There is no threat to the towns of Ely, Winton, Tower, or Soudan. No structures are threatened. Good fuel-reduction work completed over the last two years on Burntside Lake increases firefighters’ ability to manage the eastern edge.

Resources: 80 personnel and 8 aircraft. MNICS Type II Team under Incident Commander Brian Pisarek arrived today and will take command of the fire Saturday morning. The Lake Vermilion Fire Brigade and the Morse/Fall Lake Fire Department both have fire boats on Burntside Lake are conducting structure-protection assessments.

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(UPDATED at 1 p.m. CDT May 20, 2016)

The U.S. Forest Service estimates the Foss Lake Fire 15 miles west of Ely, Minnesota has burned approximately 1,000 acres. Until the Type 2 incident management team that has been ordered arrives, the Type 3 Incident Commander is Timo Rova.

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(Originally published at 9:56 a.m. CDT May 20, 2016.)

Map Foss Lake Fire
Map showing heat (the brown dots) detected by a satellite on the Foss Lake Fire at 2:43 p.m. CDT May 19, 2016.

A prescribed fire on the Superior National Forest escaped control Thursday 15 miles west of Ely, Minnesota. The intent was to burn 78 acres north of Tamarack and Foss Lakes north of the 404 Road. By late afternoon the fire had been assigned a name, Foss Lake, and was creating a large convection column of smoke topped by a pyrocumulus cloud, an indication of fire intensity.

Thursday night the Forest Service was not able to provide a size estimate due to the smoke restricting visibility.

The fire was fought yesterday by firefighters on the ground assisted by eight aircraft.

Thursday before it escaped there were 10 hand crews prepositioned in Minnesota that were not assigned to fires. Presumably many of those are now working on the Foss Lake Fire.

Yesterday’s afternoon weather conditions near the fire were 74 degrees, 6 mph wind gusting to 19 mph, and 16 percent relative humidity. The forecast for Friday: 74 degrees, south wind at 6 mph, 51 percent cloud cover, and 22 percent relative humidity. There is no rain expected until Monday.

We will update this article as the situation develops.