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In Da Woods

by Melanie B. Fullman, US Forest Service

The Final Touches

Against my better judgment (northern Minnesota in late October ?? BRRR!), I accepted a fire assignment to the Pagami Creek wildfire on the Superior NF last week. While I sorta knew what to expect, I wasn’t too thrilled when very light snowflakes appeared on Day 1 – the thought of freezing to death on a fire just seems wrong to me!

If, by now, you are wondering why ANY fire fighters are needed to ‘put out’ a fire that Nature is doing its best to smother with snow?? There are lots of reasons:

Public Investment

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 fade.

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.

Public Safety

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.

Public Lands

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 flanks).

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 heat.

Glad to be home; hoping to see YOU in the woods next!




Polar Bear Cookbook

Thank you to everyone who submitted recipes for the Polar Bear Hockey Cookbook. The cookbooks are now available. The cost for the cookbooks are $10.00 so make sure to grab one for yourself and maybe one or two as a gift. They can be purchased at the Pat O'Donnel Civic Center concession stand or by contacting Kerry Roehm or Micki Sorensen.


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