Minnesota: Pagami Creek fire mapped at 100,000 acres, evacuations ordered

A fire that started in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and was not suppressed for about two weeks, has burned outside the BWCAW and become the largest fire in Minnesota since 1918. The Pagami Creek fire has burned 100,000 acres, according to the incident management team, and forced evacuations on the south and east sides of the fire. Scroll down to see maps of the fire.

It started from a lightning strike on August 18 and by August 30 had burned approximately 130 acres.

Map Pagami Creek fire 0800 8-30-2011
Map of the Pagami Creek fire at 8:00 a.m. CT, August 30, 2011. Credit: Superior National Forest and Google Earth

The staff at the BWCAW and the Superior National Forest decided to monitor it and allow natural processes to run their course. They conducted some firing operations, burning an additional 2,000 acres, to herd the fire away from populated areas on the north and west sides, but by last weekend it was obvious that they needed to suppress it. Strong winds on Monday of 15-20 mph gusting up to 35 mph spread the fire 16 miles to the east. At that point the intensity of the fire far exceeded the capabilities of the fire suppression forces. Winds again on Tuesday spread the fire even further, to the point where it is now mapped at 100,000 acres. However the smoke makes mapping difficult, and that acreage may change after firefighters can actually see the full perimeter.

The Pagami Creek fire is ranked as the third largest fire in the history of Minnesota. Larger fires were the 250,000-acre fire near Cloquet in October of 1918 which killed 559 people, and a 200,000-acre fire near Hinckley in September of 1894 which killed 418 people. Here is a link to more information about “Infamous Fires”.

The maps below show what it looks like now:

Map Pagami Creek fire closure 1900 9-12-2011
Click to enlarge. Map of the Pagami Creek fire showing evacuation and closure areas, 7:00 p.m. CT, September 12, 2011


Map Pagami Creek fire public briefing 1900 9-13-2011
Click to enlarge. Public briefing map of the Pagami Creek fire, 7:00 p.m. CT, September 13, 2011. Each small square is a one mile on all four sides. Credit: the incident management team.

The video below was uploaded to YouTube September 12, 2011. It consists of a slide show of very nice still pictures, many showing smoke from the Pagami Creek fire. The description reads: “Paddling in the shadow of the Pagami Creek Fire, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, September 2011 – www.gregseitz.com ”

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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. Google+

13 thoughts on “Minnesota: Pagami Creek fire mapped at 100,000 acres, evacuations ordered”

  1. I worked in Northern MN for 9 years, from 2000 -2009, , we only had a couple of Type 1 fires, (Ham lake and Cavity Lake) They both burnt like crazy with the wind push, but sooner or later it ran out of fuel, We tried to burn as much as we could with Rx Burns (that we were approved to do in the BWCA) , it is really to bad that it took this long to clean that blow down out of that BWCA, how ever, still has a long way to go to clean that Blow Down out …..”Its not if burns, Its When it Burn”

  2. I could be mistaken, but isn’t the BWCA a wilderness, and if so, aren’t wilderness areas left alone when nature does its thing? Also, logistically, how does one remove hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of blown down trees? I’m not playin’ the devil’s advocate here- just askin’…

    1. You are correct, it is a wilderness. The blowdown trees have been removed, when it can be safely done, with controlled burns. Hauling it out with canoes is not really an option.

      1. This area experienced a blowdown in 1999 and the downed trees were NOT removed in the wilderness area. The forest service wanted to have them logged out but were blocked by environmental groups and now we residents of the area have to live amongst the fuel. This fire started 4 weeks ago and while we were in a drought, it was decided to “observe” the fire instead of getting it out quickly. Now we have a monster on our hands…

        1. GunflintJohn is correct that the blowdown trees were not removed from the BWCA. They were largely removed from public and private land around the edges of the BWCA.

          But, GunflintJohn, I have to disagree that they should have been logged out from the interior of the BWCA. That would have created a “We had to destroy the wilderness in order to save it” situation. Roads would have been built and heavy equipment used over a third of the BWCA. All sorts of land and water quality damage would certainly have resulted from that. I’ve long wondered if some limited and strategically placed clearing and burning could be done, but even that may have done too much damage in reaching an effective level.

          The blowdown created a situation with no good options really.

          1. Hi Dave,
            A good discussion point about clearing out of fuel from the blowdown. I’m on international waters (Gunflint Lake) and the Canadians immediately came in and cleaned up their side of the lake of blowdown fuel in 1999. Their forest rejuvenated quickly and looks much better than ours (even after we sent the Ham Lake fire over to them). All without upsetting water quality or disturbing the land very much. I think they Canucks (usually)have it right when it comes to forest management

            1. Good morning, GunflintJohn. I don’t know anything about what was done on the Canadianside. Is there something they did specifically that could be done on a large scale and 10 miles or deeper into the BWCA? The estimates range from 20-30 million trees, how do you get even a third of those out without dramatically impactingthe terrain?

    1. That was great work…thanks for the link, I had never seen that.

      From what I can tell the fire is probably close to some patches of blowdown, but the major blowdown area starts roughly six miles or so to the north of the current perimeter. I’ve been trying to find some more detailed maps that show if any of that has been treated with prescribed burns. If anyone has a link to that it would be appreciated.

      1. Funny. I remember watching video of some crews getting canoe training for the Ham Lake fire a year later. Some of the looks were less than enthusiastic, but as one would expect they sucked it up and did what they needed to do.

        I finally found a map with the fire and blowdown together. It’s from an outfitter in Ely so I think I can have reasonable confidence in it.


  3. I don’t understand the ridiculous policy of allowing these fires to burn. I was here when the fire began ihiked the pow wow trail 10 days later and it was easy to see it was growing expotentially. The usfs could have easily extinguished this fire within the first two weeks but they sat and watched. This is what they call minitoring. Now they are scrambling to fight a larger threat. The same blunder was made years ago in yellowstone. Someone should be held accountable for failed policy decisions.

  4. @Dave
    The Sacramento ‘Shots had a pretty good time, despite the mosquitoes and humidity and heavy blowdown. They caught fish for supper and were re-supplied by a Beaver (Forest Service’s best-kept secret, according to some), and even shipped FILM out with the pilot for developing and scanning, which is how those photos got online — that and an internet connection in Arizona!

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