The front lines of the BWCA fireby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
More than an inch of rain over the weekend helped firefighters get better control of the Cavity Lake wildfire. As of Monday, it's about 65 percent contained. But fire managers say crews will be in the wilderness battling the fire for a good long time. We went out to the edge of the fire to see how it's done.
Gunflint Trail, Minn. — Twenty people from Missouri make up a "spike crew," a group stationed close to the fire, away from the main camp. Twelve days ago, they were brought out here to the northeastern edge of Seagull Lake. They set up tents in a couple of wilderness camping spots. And they got to work.
In his normal life, Charles Burke is a guard at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. On this day, he's sitting under the cedars at the edge of Seagull Lake. He's running a pump that draws water from the lake, pushes it up the rough hills and across the low spots, to get water closer to the fire.
This is the 12th day in spike camp for the Missourians. In that time, Burke and the others have only been back to the main camp twice, for hot showers and a meal in the dining tent.
"When you go out on a fire assignment, there's always a good chance you'll spike out," Burke says. "You're closer to work, you're not spending an hour or two getting to work. You get used to it."
Every day, at the end of a 14 to 16-hour shift, they jump in the lake to get clean and cool off.
Burke says there are things that make fighting this fire different from others he's been on. For one thing, the elevation isn't nearly as high as on many western fires. On the other hand, he says the Boundary Waters has more rocks than he's used to seeing.
Then there's the oddity of getting to the fire in a boat. And, of course, the blowdown of 1999, which threw millions of trees to the ground in a nasty tangle.
"Usually in western fires you get some timber that's fallen from the fire, but it's not as bad to work around," Burke says.
For the moment, Burke isn't running his pump. Instead, a plane -- a CL-215 -- is dropping water on a trouble spot. It skims the lake, scooping up more than 1,000 gallons in each pass, then circles around and drops it inland.
That's where we're headed, to meet the rest of the crew. The pungent smell of doused fire surrounds us. We push through the fallen trunks and branches -- remnants of the 1999 blowdown and the still-smoldering fire. Here and there a puff of smoke rises from the duff -- the rotting vegetation that was the forest floor.
About 15 firefighters are standing on a bare rock that sticks up above the rest of the terrain. They're staying out of the way as the plane dumps its wet load. When the plane heads off to another area, they trudge back to the trail they've been slashing through the woods.
They're wearing green pants and bright yellow shirts, both made of fire-resistant Nomex. Their hard hats and sunglasses shade faces smudged with soot and dripping sweat. It's about 95 degrees.
They're carrying Pulaskis -- the standard firefighter's tool. It's a digging tool shaped like a pick-axe, with one broad end and one pointed end.
Crew boss Keith Crabtree gets a check-in call on the radio from his supervisor.
He tells the supervisor his team has enough supplies for the day. And they agree the group will be flown in to the base camp this evening for a meal and a shower.
The call was from Barry Shullanburger. He's got four crews to keep track of, all working at various points on the eastern flank of the fire. Later, he pays a personal visit to the Missouri crew to check on their progress.
"I've been using a helicopter, boat, and also the Beaver plane to access my division," he says.
Shullanburger says fighting this fire is different from fighting fires out west. In the west, crews can usually get close to the fire by truck. And there's not much water available. Here in the Boundary Waters, lakes are everywhere.
"To look at this fire from the air and see all those lakes, you just wonder how it burns," he says. "But once you're on the ground you can see how dry it is, and how sensitive the ground is because it is so dry."
And Shullanburger says the firefighters are trying to be sensitive to the ground. Since it's a wilderness area, they're trying to put out the fire in keeping with the "leave no trace" philosophy.
"We're using air resources, which is very minimal impact to the soil and the land and what not," Shullanburger says. "And then using the crews, stirring and mixing. And I think when you get some weather, get a snowpack on top of this in the wintertime, it'll be hard to tell where this line even was."
They're even clearing the path for the hose in a rough zig-zag pattern, instead of a straight line, so it won't be visible from the water.
Ben Marcacci is heading to the hotspot ahead. It's a stubborn area of fire, about half the size of a football field.
"We worked with a couple different shifts yesterday, helicopters dropping water, and it just didn't quite do it," Marcacci says. "We've got to get in there and actually work it with hand tools, trench it out around there. And we might get a little water action from the air, but probably just hose it out."
That's what the fire is by now -- a lot of separate hot spots, smoldering and crackling and occasionally flaring up, in an area about 35 square miles.
"Everything up here's been patchy, not a lot of real hot, hot burns," Marcacci says. "It fingers out, it'll jump -- an ember will jump up and go a half mile ahead and start another little patch. This was all prescribed-burned in 2003."
So the fuel is a combination of young shrubs and saplings that have grown up since the prescribed burn three years ago, and the duff, the rotting organic matter that forms the forest floor. Ben Marcacci says that's the stubborn part that'll keep these crews busy for months.
"It could rain an inch and it'll still be burning underneath the ground, so you've got to get in there, turn it over, drown it, turn it over again, drown it," says Marcacci.
The Missouri crew is on day 12. After 14 days, they get two days of rest before they're sent home, or back out to the Cavity Lake fire.
Fire managers say they expect to have crews out here until the snow flies.
- All Things Considered, 07/31/2006, 5:47 p.m.