Local criticism of management of Pagami Creek fire

Pagami fire, Lake Polly 9-12-11 Hans Martin USGS
Pagami Creek fire, burning near Lake Polly, 9-12-2011. Photo: Hans Martin, USGS

When lightning ignited the Pagami Creek fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on August 18, the Superior National Forest made a decision to not suppress it, but to herd it around as necessary to keep it within a reasonable maximum management area while allowing natural processes to do their thing. After 12 days the fire burning in the northeast corner of Minnesota had only grown to approximately 130 acres, and fire management officials may have thought things were going well — until September 12 when everything went to hell. Strong winds gusting up to 35 mph spread the fire 16 miles to the east. And now, $5.7 million and 93,000 acres later, you have the third largest fire in the history of Minnesota, meteorologists are tracking the smoke as it passes over China, and the local newspaper, the Ely Echo, has written a scathing editorial criticizing the decisions the U. S. Forest Service made.

I spent a lot of time on specialized “fire use” incident management teams managing these types of fires. It IS possible to manage a fire, herding it around, without fully suppressing it. But there are dozens of variables that have to be scrutinized by extremely knowledgeable, experienced, smart people to pull it off successfully. Something in the equation was missing on the Pagami Creek fire, and it just points out how difficult a limited suppression strategy can be to perfectly execute over a period of weeks or months. Sometimes you make good decisions or you are lucky, and the weather makes the team and the agency look good. Other times, mistakes in judgement are made and the weather blows them up into a hundred thousand black acres, and smoke columns are tracked across China.

Thanks go out to Chuck and Mary


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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.

8 thoughts on “Local criticism of management of Pagami Creek fire”

  1. Its about time someone gives the Forest Service some credit….

    “Forest Service deserves credit for BWCA fire effort
    • Article by: ROD SANDO
    • Updated: November 3, 2011 – 8:52 PM
    Star Tribune
    The early part of my career was spent in forest-fire control and fire research. Much of that work was devoted to the Superior National Forest, describing the fuels and fire behavior found in northeastern Minnesota.
    This year’s Pagami Creek fire is an example of what rarely happens in the local fire regime. While the fire has been contained, public blame and recrimination continues.
    Second-guessing is always easy. The evolution of management policy in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness has had a controversial history……”

    [Note from Bill. We deleted most of Brad’s post because it contained the entire text from a copyrighted article. See my reply below for our link to excerpts from the same article that we posted on November 4, 2011.]

  2. I’m surprised that I didn’t read another airtanker plug in this article. “If only we had 40 Large Airtankers like we did back in 2000 this never would have happened”. Smoky bear needs a new look. Instead of a shovel and a bucket of water, give him a drip torch. Let it burn!

  3. I know what you are saying, Bill. It is possible to herd many of these types of fires around in particular areas and fuel types. It does take a lot of knowledge, talent, coordination with the IMET types and common sense. You probably had one other tool—Studebaker?!

  4. I’m a US citizen: I don’t like forest fires! I don’t like the costs of wildfires! I want things to be natural! I don’t want prescribed fires to cause smoke on Memorial Day, the 4th of July, County Fair Week, during my daughters/sons Little League Games, or on Labor Day!I want things to be natural! I love Wilderness and National Parks because they allow Nature to be “natural”; I’m a newspaper editor who writes Editorials and I have 20/20 hindsight; I love Nature and everything “natural”. I’m mad about the Pagami Creek Fire.

    1. Well for your info it was mother nature that started this fire, this was the best way to take care of those fuels…
      I moved to Northern MN in 2000, yes after the 1999 blow down storm, from that point on we the USFS had to change the way we fought fire in the BWCA, had to do Rx burns along the BWCA so we could protect the homes, structures, all the public recreation areas, we were allowed to burn in the wilderness and we did lots of burns (removing the blow down fuel) to make it safe for all folks in and out of the wilderness, and our fire fighters. Yes there is always a chance we will lose a big burn, but remember we need to let these areas burn and clean out the blow down….Yes this fire caused allot of issue’s for campers, home owners, wilderness user and fire personnel…

      I ask you this, would you want your area of Ely, Grand Maria, Isabel, all those little towns in Northern MN to end up like the homes and towns in TX ?? ( I don’t think so) Did any Fire Fighters lose there life ?? (Thank God For That)…….

      Fire in Northern MN is a natural thing, My hat goes off to those fire fighters and the FS for the way they handled this fire, yes it may have cost 5.7 million, it could have been double the cost……

      1. Brad – relax, my friend! My attempt to be sarcastic about the criticism of the fire, as expressed by the local news paper editor, obviously missed it’s mark!


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