REGIONAL— For the first time in nearly half a century, the U.S. Forest Service closed the entire Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness due to a rash of wildfires that have exploded across the …
REGIONAL— For the first time in nearly half a century, the U.S. Forest Service closed the entire Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness due to a rash of wildfires that have exploded across the national forest and in nearby Canada in recent weeks.
The closure began last Saturday and is in effect at least until Friday, Sept. 3, after the Forest Service announced mid-week that they are extending their initial one-week closure of the wilderness. The closure is in place for the entire BWCAW and includes all lands and waters, including both overnight and day use.
The decision to close the Boundary Waters is not unprecedented but it has happened only once before. The Forest Service closed the entire Superior National Forest due to extreme drought back in 1976.
The closure means no new permits are being issued until further notice. All permits issued for Aug. 21-Sept. 3 have been canceled, and anyone with permits starting Saturday, Sept. 4 or beyond has been sent an email alerting them that their permits may be canceled as well. Meanwhile, wilderness rangers began fanning out last weekend across the 1.1 million-acre wilderness in order to contact travelers already in the wilderness to advise them to evacuate in an orderly way as soon as practical.
Ginny Nelson, manager of the Spirit of the Wilderness outfitters, said she had a heavy heart as she processed many trip cancellations this week. On Monday, the Ely outfitting business was still waiting on a couple of canoe parties to return. “We normally have a big week here with outfitting, but this is turning out to not be my favorite week at all,” she said.
Looking at the positive side of things, Nelson said a couple of groups who were kept out of the BWCAW decided to still take their gear and head on a trip outside of the Boundary Waters. “There is a small silver lining that those people who come to the area and are solely focused on the Boundary Waters, may not take the time to check out the other area lakes and local attractions. These circumstances now give them that chance to explore the Ely area in a different way. They are finding out that there are some fun resorts and campgrounds, hiking trails and other outdoor activities here, too,” she said.
Outfitters were playing a waiting game this week, hoping that conditions will change enough to allow the Forest Service to reopen the wilderness.
Kawishiwi District Ranger Aaron Kania said the Forest Service will assess conditions weekly and that they remain hopeful that sufficient rain will arrive to allow them to reopen the Boundary Waters as soon as possible.
“This is definitely not a decision we took lightly,” said Kania. “We know the impact this will have on businesses in our gateway communities. This really shows how extreme this drought has become and how extreme the fire conditions have gotten.”
Months of intensifying drought have created fire conditions far beyond what is normally seen in northeastern Minnesota, even during the fall fire season, and the conditions have stretched resources well beyond the capacity of the Forest Service to manage fires and recreational use of the BWCAW simultaneously.
“As we looked at it all together, it really made sense to go wilderness-wide with the closure,” Kania added, who said the decision allows the Forest Service to focus its fire-fighting resources on the highest priority fires.
The Forest Service had already closed much of the northwestern part of the Boundary Waters several weeks ago in response to several major wildfires just north of the border, in Quetico Provincial Park. Those fires have grown dramatically in recent days, as well, fueled by the same conditions that are posing challenges south of the border.
While the Forest Service had managed to keep most of its wildfires under control for much of the summer, the recent intensification of the drought and a full week of near critical fire weather allowed both the Greenwood and John Ek fires to explode as of last Friday.
The Greenwood blaze, a lightning strike fire first reported Aug. 15, more than doubled in size on Monday, fanned by dry air and strong southwesterly winds. As of Tuesday, the Forest Service had put the Greenwood fire at 21,720 acres. That fire is burning outside the BWCAW and has forced the evacuation of several hundred Lake County residents in the potential path of the fire. The Forest Service has offered no information on the status of homes or cabins in the path of the fire. Under extreme fire conditions on Monday, the Greenwood fire command pulled crews out of the McDougal Lake area, which had been stationed there to protect cabins.
Conditions were so extreme Monday afternoon that command even pulled aircraft from the fire for a time.
Tuesday’s cooler temperatures and lighter winds allowed crews to re-engage in the McDougal Lake area and work to strengthen fire lines and conduct defensive backfiring near residences to reduce fuels near structures. The fire command has relocated to Babbitt, while the Isabella Community Center will serve as a forward operating base for the fire-fighting effort.
Monday’s extreme fire conditions also blew up the John Ek fire, located near Little Saganaga Lake in a remote portion of the central BWCAW. According to Inciweb, that fire is now estimated at 1,567 acres, although no resources are currently assigned to fire line operations there. Crews are assessing the situation and will develop a suppression plan, although resources are already stretched thin on the Greenwood fire.
The Forest Service is also aware of more than a dozen smaller fires throughout the Boundary Waters, several of which were first spotted this week. Any one of them has the potential to grow given the exceptionally dry fuel conditions.
With the closure of the Boundary Waters and other parts of the Superior National Forest, the Ely Chamber of Commerce is emphasizing that many recreational sites remain open in and around Ely. That includes extensive hiking trail systems, such as Secret-Blackstone, Bass Lake, and Kawishiwi Falls.
Chamber director Eva Sebesta said Tuesday that she sees the economic impact in Ely. “If it is just a week where the Boundary Waters is closed, I think that is something that our outfitters can rebound from. We have had a very busy outfitting season for many businesses. If it ends up being a closure for the rest of the season that will have a big impact here, and that has a ripple effect across the community.”
Sebesta said many outfitters are looking to pivot for the rest of the season and help Ely visitors explore and take advantage of some of the under-utilized places in the Superior National Forest for day trips and hiking. “Unfortunately the (coronavirus) pandemic kind of primed us for being able to pivot and look at things from a different perspective,” she said.
Jason Zabokrtsky, of Ely Outfitting Co., predicted that Forest Service officials may be preparing for an extended wilderness closure. “The Boundary Waters permit reservation site at www.rec.gov shows that not a single permit is available through the quota season that ends Oct. 1,” he said. “I don’t know what they are driving at, but right now no permit reservations are allowed through the end of next month.”
Kania said the Forest Service will be considering allowing some day use of the wilderness in the coming days, but for now, he said, officials are focused on the fire situation. “Once we catch up with the fire activity, we may be able to allow for some day use, like motor use,” he said.
Zabokrtsky was still waiting for a couple of canoe parties to return on Tuesday. “Our business is 100-percent BWCA canoe tripping and right now there is zero of that business going on,” he said.
Ely Outfitting Co. staff Nick Bailles and Amy Freeman were in their Sheridan Street facility Tuesday morning organizing and shelving sleeping bags and cook kits. “It is so sad to see these shelves full. The equipment is usually in canoes in the wilderness,” Freeman said. Other staff members were in the office processing trip cancellations, answering emails and fielding phone calls
“We are in a holding pattern and we don’t know when the Forest Service will tell us what their next decision is or when they will make it,” Zabokrtsky said.
Loggers pitch in
Local loggers put their skills to use earlier this week to help create shaded fuel breaks at key locations on the Greenwood Fire.
“It is important to remember that anyone who works on a fire needs to receive additional and specific training before they are allowed near the fire line,” Kania noted. Local logging contractors completed that training last Sunday which included practicing the deployment of fire shelters.
“They got to work quickly after they finished training and are giving firefighters additional tools to use in their efforts to stop the Greenwood Fire. Their work will help protect people, property, and natural resources,” Kania said.
“We know that people care greatly about the long-term health of the forest and the beauty of the natural areas in the Superior National Forest. While the logging actions are taking place during an active incident, loggers are following all the applicable laws and regulations,” he said.
Kania expressed his appreciation for the work being done by these loggers. “We’re glad to be able to contract with local companies who can apply their knowledge of this area to help in our efforts on the Greenwood Fire. We know they are committed to this place and the long-term availability of timber resources in northeast Minnesota.”
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