Minnesota: strong winds spread the Pagami Creek fire 16 miles to the east

Pagami Creek fire September 11, 2011.
Pagami Creek fire September 11, 2011. Photo: Superior National Forest


UPDATE AT 12:48 p.m. CT, September 14, 2011:

Updated information about the Pagami Creek fire.


UPDATE at 10:53 p.m. CT, September 13, 2011: The InciWeb site for the Pagami Creek fire was updated about an hour ago, and includes a new figure for the size of the fire: 100,000 acres. Maps of the fire can be found on the InciWeb site…if it is up and running. It had problems off and on today.


Monday morning the Pagami Creek fire in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) east of Ely was 11,000 acres. Today I saw a map that was updated at 7:00 p.m. Monday night. From my very unofficial estimate derived from counting 640-acre sections that had burned, the fire had blown up to over 70,000 acres. The maps may be an overestimate of the fire’s size; mapping it was difficult due to the smoke. Here is a link to a different, but current as of Monday night, map of the fire.

The Associated Press is reporting 60,000 acres, a figure which apparently came from Minnesota Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jean Bergerson Tuesday morning. InciWeb, which at times has been having problems today, was updated at noon on Tuesday with this information:

Yesterday, a finger of the Pagami Creek Fire made an unprecedented 16 mile run to the east, reaching the edge of Polly Lake. The fire became a plume-driven event and reached in excess of 60,000 acres. Residents were evacuated from 36 addresses along the portion of the Cramer Road/Lake County Road 7 from Kawishiwi Lake south to the Wanless Road (Forest Road 172) and along the Wanless Road west from the junction with the Cramer Road to Homestead Lake. Winds are expected to be strong and out of the northwest and west again today with little or no precipitation expected.

Pagami Creek fire, burns along lake shore
Pagami Creek fire, burns along lake shore in undated photo by Superior National Forest

The blowup was caused by 15-20 mph west and northwest winds on Monday that gusted up to 35 mph pushing the fire approximately 16 miles to the east. The National Weather Service is predicting strong northwest winds again on Tuesday of 18 mph gusting to 28 along with a relative humidity of 37%. But between 2 and 6 p.m. there is a 45 percent chance of showers. Tuesday’s high temperature will be 60 in Ely, but on Wednesday it will cool off quite a bit with a high of only 46, with winds of 14 mph gusting to 18.

Check out this animation of smoke from the fire as seen from a satellite on September 11. And HERE is an excellent gallery of pictures of the fire…taken from the ground.

The Pagami Creek fire is the largest in the state since the Ham Lake fire burned over 76,000 acres in Minnesota and Ontario in May 2007, destroying 163 structures near Gunflint Trail.

Doug Turman’s Type 1 Incident Management Team has been dispatched to the fire and will assume command at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday. Maybe his team will have better luck obtaining firefighting resources. Here is an excerpt from an article posted Monday night in the Lake County News-Chronicle (you may need to register to view the site):

Forest Service fire specialist Tim Norman told a crowd of more than 100 people Monday night in Isabella that the service “didn’t have what we needed today” to contain the fire.

More than 60 firefighters from multi-agency fire crews continue to battle the blaze on the ground, and five more 20-person teams from the national system of wildland fire crews are on the way, said Becca Manlove, spokeswoman for the interagency team battling the fire. Officials said it has been difficult putting together the usual “overhead team” of national fire experts because so many fires are burning in Texas and elsewhere.

It’s also harder to get firefighting aircraft. Two large state-owned water-dropping CL-215 airplanes continue to fight the blaze, along with one smaller water-scooping plane and a small helicopter. A large water-dropping helicopter also has been ordered from outside the state.

“But when the winds are as strong as they have been, and are supposed to be, there’s really nothing you can do to stop it,” said Mark Van Every, Kawishiwi District ranger for the Superior National Forest.

In eight hours, the fire, pushed by wind from the west gusting to 40 mph, raced more than 16 miles across some of the most popular spots in the canoe area, including the routes that begin at Lake One and Sawbill Landing. By 6 p.m., the fire was confirmed to be outside of the wilderness, brushing Forest Center and heading east into Cook County.

There are no federal government national-contract large air tankers anywhere near Minnesota today, but they do have access to three Minnesota state aircraft, two CL-215s and a single-engine air tanker, plus a few cute little Beavers that can drop 100 gallons of water. But with the vast amount of water in and around the Pagami Creek fire in the BWCAW, I’m thinking that it would only be feasible to use water-dropping aircraft, such as CL-215/415s, the Martin Mars, or helicopters. Fire retardant, which is dropped by most air tankers, is not supposed to be dropped in or near lakes and streams.  The Martin Mars would be perfect for this situation, able to scoop up to 7,200 gallons of water from a lake.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.