Fire fighting – i.e. fire management – is much more than
just putting water on flames.
At more than 90,000 acres and almost entirely in the
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA), the Pagami
Creek fire stretches across a fairly inaccessible mosaic
of lakes and wetlands. The effort to contain the fire
involved flying or boating-in hundreds of fire fighters,
pumps, hoses, fittings, food supplies, and other gear.
Crews stretched-out miles and miles of hose, coupling
and re-coupling sections of hose and nozzles as they
went. As the fire winds down, all that stuff must be
retrieved, refurbished, and returned to service.
And of course, none of it is in the same neat packages
in which it was delivered. Huge piles of wet, dirty hose
drape like limp noodles across rocks and stumps; hose
fittings and pump parts are loosely organized into
heavily taped soggy cardboard boxes; food boxes have
been transformed into garbage containers; gas cans for
pumps and saws are half-full and slightly sticky from
grease and oil.
Some of the gear was back-hauled with departing crews,
but in many cases, the supplies and equipment remained
behind for contingency purposes (just in case…) or as
the fire progressed. Now, with what fire managers call a
‘season-ending event’ upon us, there has to be a
concerted effort to retrieve everything before fire
lines become blurred by falling leaves, falling trees,
and falling snow, and memories of their exact location
The recovery process isn’t 100% – I’ve found small bits
of equipment in the woods years after a major fire – but
we certainly try to get it all. It’s the right thing to
do and we certainly don’t have the funding to buy new.
Like any National Forest, the BWCA attracts people all
year – hunters, fishers, canoers and kayakers,
dog-mushers, hikers, etc. Once orders restricting or
closing access to roads and trails have been lifted, the
public is usually quick to return. We need to make sure
it is safe for them (you?) to do so.
Most of the real hazards to the public are snags: burned
trees with burned-up root systems that stand
precariously, like silent sentinels, still at their
post. In just moderate winds, snag tops can break off
and/or the whole tree can fall over. These trees drop
almost soundlessly, imperiling whatever or whoever might
be below. As efforts to attack the fire decrease, land
managers concentrate on cutting down or pushing over the
most dangerous trees. Because of limited time and money,
most of that work focuses on trail and road corridors,
campgrounds, trailheads, boat launches and other places
where large-ish groups of visitors gather.
Another safety issue is repair and replacement of road
signs and recreation amenities, such as picnic tables,
restrooms, etc. On almost every fire, Stop signs, road
markers, and directional signs are accidentally knocked
or run over or in some cases, burned up. Thus, the very
last fire crews are often tasked with finding them, then
fixing them or installing new ones. In addition, dozens
of road intersections and wide spots in the forest that
have been temporarily designated as “Drop Points” or “Heli-spots”
must be returned to their original condition. Any
remaining equipment and gear stockpiled at these sites
has to be collected and returned to the fire cache. In
addition, hundreds of hastily made, but very useful,
cardboard signs identifying these spots, along with
miles and miles and miles of brightly colored flagging
(ribbon) must be removed by hand and hauled away. The
bigger the fire, the more that needs to be done to make
the area reasonably safe.
The final major task is rehabilitating any damage caused
by the suppression effort itself (as opposed to the
fire). As conditions allow, fire control lines built
either by hand or heavy equipment are assessed for
their potential to erode, adding sediment to streams,
blocking culverts, etc. In places like the Boundary
Water Wilderness, many of those fire breaks will be
restored to a nearly original condition, with dirt
replaced in, more or less, the spot from which it came
and tree branches and other forest debris scattered over
the ground. There’s usually LOTS of flagging and temp.
signs to remove here as well.
Sometimes, relief culverts, water bars, or straw wattles
(function like sand bags) or other erosion
control/prevention devices must be installed to avoid
further damage to the land and water. Depending on the
location and soil type, some of this work is done by
equipment, some by hand. Other rehab. work can include
seeding, fixing fences, replacing rock or dirt berm
barriers on closed roads, and similar activities.
Much of the time, this work is done by contractors
working directly for a USFS employee stationed on the
District where the fire occurred. This approach helps
ensure it is done to local standards and improves
long-term monitoring. That way, if something needs to be
re-done or improved a few years later, local folks are
still there to get it done.
I’ll be Home For Christmas…
and this week’s column!
I was only on the Pagami Creek Fire 4 days, due to
exceptional performance by a 20-person USFS crew from
northern Colorado, and cooperative weather. In just 2
days, the crew retrieved, packaged-up, and coordinated
removal by helicopter more than 20 800-pound loads of
STUFF from our section of the southern edge of the fire
(other crews did the same along the north and east
The Colorado crew also hand-carried 9 canoes back out to
our access road, a haul of nearly a mile, and worked
with a seaplane to retrieve the small motorized boat
that was used to ferry the canoes across the lake. They
also obliterated 2 temp. heli-spots in swamps inside the
Wilderness and a
dozen temp. camps and drop points.
While they were doing all that, two locally-hired
excavating contractors refurbished several miles of road
and newly created fire control trails.
It was a short, intense assignment where I rediscovered
the incredible beauty and ecological diversity of the
Boundary Waters, the organizational and logistical
challenges of working in a very remote area, and that
walking (7 miles) through a swamp generates lots of body
Glad to be home; hoping to see YOU in the woods next!