FAQ: Boundary Waters fireby Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio
What is the BWCA or BWCAW?
The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a federally designated wilderness area that spans more than 1 million acres across the northern third of the Superior National Forest. The remote area is managed by the U.S. Forest Service and is home to moose, beaver, bears, wolves, bobcats, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, loons, and more than 150 species of birds.
The area's 1,200 miles of canoe routes have attracted visitors from around the world who paddle into the area through one of several designated entry points. The Boundary Waters is also beloved by hikers and cross-country skiers. The fire has led authorities to close many of the area's entry points, and authorities evacuated more than 100 campers as a precaution.
Can you still get into the Boundary Waters?
Which roads are closed?
• County Highway 7 North at the intersection of 4 mile Grade Road
• All roads and trails north of 4 mile grade Road/170/The Grade Road including:
• Wilson Lake Rd.
• Forest Road 355
• Forest Road 348
• Forest Road 1226
• Forest Road 347
• Forest Road 1238
The most current list is available here.
What restrictions are in place while in the Boundary Waters?
The Forest Service has placed restrictions on campfires in all areas of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Campfires are only allowed between 6 p.m. and midnight within fire grates at designated campsites.
Restrictions are also in place in the areas of Superior National Forest outside of the BWCAW. Authorities have restricted campfires to within fire grates at designated sites and have banned the possession and use of fireworks within the forest.
When and how did the fire start?
The fire started from a lightning strike about 14 miles east of Ely and was discovered on Aug. 18.
Why was it allowed to burn?
Authorities often allow fires caused by lightning to burn, rather than embark on costly and potentially dangerous firefighting operations. Fire crews responded to the Boundary Waters fire, but they focused on managing the blaze, which didn't spread rapidly until Sept. 12. Experts say many wildfires occur naturally and can be beneficial. Read this for more on the debate over whether to let a fire burn.
Who is in charge of the firefighting operation?
The size and scope of fighting the Pagami Creek wildfire has grown so large that a special management team from the northern Rocky Mountains has arrived in Ely to take over the operation. Nearly 740 firefighters working to corral the blaze as of Tuesday, Sept. 20.
Minnesota Interagency Fire Center initially led response efforts. The state created the system in 1984 to help agencies coordinate responses to wildfires. Incident commander Jim Hinds oversees the collaboration, which includes the USDA Forest Service, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry, the U.S. National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The management team is also coordinating work with local officials, the National Guard and fire crews from New Jersesy, Montana, Arizona, Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin, and California.
Are they fighting the fire or containing it?
Both. Crews are flying airplanes and helicopters across the site to drop water to try to fight the blaze. They are also working to contain the fire by setting up perimeters along the fire's southern and western ends. Authorities said the fire likely will not be extinguished solely by their efforts. Rain and cooler temperatures are helping slow down the fire, giving fire crews a better chance of controlling the blaze.
How many acres have burned so far?
Authorities estimate the fire has burned about 100,000 acres, about 10 percent of the Boundary Waters. However, they caution that heavy smoke has made it difficult to get an accurate estimate.
How are authorities fighting the fire?
They are using airplanes and helicopters to drop water to slow the spread of the fire. Crews are also using heavy equipment, including bulldozers, along the southern end of the blaze to set up a fire wall to try to prevent the fire from spreading to nearby towns.
In addition to crews and equipment from all over the region, the Rockies, California and New Jersey, four Minnesota National Guard "Black Hawk" helicopters have been deployed to support firefighters. The Canadian province of Manitoba is sending two water bombers and an air attack plane, and about 100 elite "hot shot" firefighters from Arizona arrived Thursday, Sept. 15.
How long could the fire last?
Authorities say it's too soon to say how long the fire will last, but they said it could burn for weeks.
How does it compare to other fires in Minnesota's history?
The fire is the largest in Minnesota since 1931, when 993,000 acres burned in the Red Lake Fire, killing 4 people. It's also larger than the 2007 Ham Lake fire, which burned more than 75,000 acres. Despite the fire's size, it hasn't caused any major property damage so far, unlike the Ham Lake fire that destroyed more than 30 structures. Below is a list of the biggest fires in Minnesota history, according to the DNR and the University of Minnesota:
1. Cloquet Fire, 1918: Burned 1.2 million acres and killed 453 people
2. Baudette-Spooner Fire, 1910: Burned 1 million acres and killed 42 people
3. Red Lake Fire, 1931: Burned 993,000 acres and killed 4
4. Boundary Waters, 1864: Burned at least 400,000 acres
5. Hinkley Fire, 1894: 350,000 acres burned, at least 418 killed
6. Boundary Waters, 1875: 224,000 acres
7. Boundary Waters, 1894: 170,000 acres
8. Pagami Creek Fire, 2011, at least 100,000 acres burned
9. Ham Lake Fire, 2007: 75,851 acres burned, about half in the U.S., half in Canada
10. Cavity Lake Fire, 2006: 32,000 acres burned
(MPR reporter Tim Nelson contributed to this report.)
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this report said the Pagami Creek fire is the largest in Minnesota since 1918. The current version is correct.