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.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

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.

3 thoughts on “Harrowing story of wilderness rangers fleeing in canoes from a wildfire”

  1. Incredible story, well told. One of the most interesting parts for me was the discussion on reaching the island, as to whether to deploy [yet?] or not. This suggests the onus we have come to associate with the decision to deploy fire shelters. I have deployed before, and remember a discussion that clearly showed we all felt crossing that line made the event we were in “serious”, and the anticipation of that deployment decision being scrutinized later troubled me. A creepy feeling in that in a life-threatening emergency we might pause to consider that we might be asked to justify a decision later by folks who weren’t there…

  2. This is the first time I have been able to watch the video all the way through, a bit traumatic for me because my Daughter was one of the Rangers who went through this horrifying ordeal. I am very proud of ALL the Rangers. They kept their heads in an unbelievable situation and I believe this is what helped them to survive.

  3. Wow!–No one could have made up such a harrowing chain of events that these six individuals experienced. Cool, calm and decisive escape moves saved their lives. Thank you for sharing


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