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Points North: Lack of rain bad for trout, good for fire

Photo of the Ham Lake Fire
Photo of the Ham Lake Fire

Finalcut_PN_20100430.mp38.86 MB

Parked on our property is a lonely Airstream trailer. A nomadic steelhead-fishing friend dropped it off a few weeks ago, as he does every spring, to use as a base of operations while he fishes along Minnesota's North Shore. In most years, he's around for about a week, then he pulls out and rolls north to Canada.

This spring, the trailer is stuck in steelhead limbo. A very early spring warm-up and utter lack of precipitation has reduced Lake Superior tributaries to trickles, bringing spring steelhead fishing to a halt. We haven't seen our friend who owns the Airstream for a couple of weeks, because he's retreated to his home base in the Twin Cities and is waiting for a rain to raise the river levels and hopefully trigger a steelhead spawning run.

My friend isn't the only one who is waiting for rain. Across northern Minnesota's boreal forest, everyone is watching the weather forecast. The forest is dry-very dry-and the big wildfires of the last decade, culminating with 2007's destructive Ham Lake Fire on the Gunflint Trail, are vividly remembered. Until a soaking rain occurs, we are faced with historic fire danger.

As I write, a DNR forester just stopped in the office. He was called out on wildfires in the Tower area last week. Now he's back and keeping his fingers crossed that a major blaze doesn't start here. By late April, fire conditions were already worse than they were when the Ham Lake Fire began-and that fire didn't get rolling until the second week of May. Adding to the risk is human activity in the woods, which is more than usual due to the prolonged nice weather.

The human factor plays into fire danger a couple of ways. First, as we've learned from Smokey Bear since childhood, people start fires. And second, when a fire starts, it is up to emergency crews who respond to find people and get them out of the woods. Up here on the edge of the wilderness, that may mean finding folks who are out on hiking trails, canoeing in the BWCAW or staying at a remote cabin or campsite-not an easy task.

When the Ham Lake fire broke out, some evacuations occurred post haste, because the wind-driven blaze was an immediate threat to homes, cabins and recreational areas. Fortunately, the Gunflint Fire Department, the local responders, had lots of practice with wildfire evacuations in the past decade and quickly went to work. It should be noted that although the Ham Lake fire destroyed dozens of structures on the Gunflint Trail, the only loss of life occurred two years after the fire was extinguished when the man accused of starting the fire took his own life.

After protecting human life, local firefighters strive to protect property. (In contrast, wildfire crews will address the fire in the forest.) In Cook County, many home and cabin owners have installed sprinkler systems operated with a portable pump drawing water from a lake or stream. The pumps are fueled with propane tanks, which provide longer running times than gasoline. Many property owners took advantage of government assistance to install sprinkler systems. Sprinklers are used to keep structures and nearby vegetation wet to prevent fires from starting from wind-thrown embers or approaching flames.

Multiple fires-both intentional "prescribed burns" and natural or human-caused wildfires--have burned in and near the canoe country since the historic July 4 blowdown storm in 1999, but lots of fuel still remains for future fires. The fuel includes not only wind-felled trees, but also a build up of fuels resulting from a century of wildfire suppression. Like the prairie, the boreal forest is periodically renewed with fire. When the natural fire cycle is disrupted, the dead vegetative material begins to build up.

In northeastern Minnesota, the fire situation is affected both by logging outside the wilderness and strict fire suppression within the BWCAW. I was once told by a U.S. Forest Service wildfire expert that after the original big pine was cut and the forest cover was mostly managed by logging, balsam fir, a prolific native species, became more abundant in the forest. Balsams are short-lived conifers susceptible to spruce budworm infestations which kill mature trees across a large area.

There isn't much out there in the woods that’s more flammable than a dead balsam. But a fire raging through a stand of budworm-killed balsam isn't necessarily a bad thing, because it also burns up the seed source for future balsam-dominated forests. Without fire, the balsam grows back and the budworm cycle repeats. Foresters generally identify areas with dense balsam stands-living or dead-as high fuel loads.

Within the wilderness, fire suppression and the lack of logging since the wilderness legislation was passed in 1978 also altered the forest vegetation. It was not coincidence that much of the destruction occurring in the '99 blowdown storm was mature aspen toppling over because it was at the end of its lifespan. Fire suppression also favored tree species such as aspen over the fire-dependant white, red and jack pines.

While human habitation and land use priorities make it nearly impossible to return natural wildfire to the landscape on a broad scale, it is fair to say forest managers are inching toward management schemes that better mimic natural processes. Prescribed burns are used to remove fuel in limited areas (because the fire must be kept under control) and restoring pine forests is more often an objective for timber harvest plans. While you can always find forest management cranks and critics, it is fair to say today's foresters are doing the best they can within the confines of wilderness regulations and the management strategies available to them.

Still, Mother Nature has the final say on what goes on in the woods. All it takes is a lightning strike to obliterate decades of forest growth and start the process over again. And in a super-dry spring like this one, all bets are off until it rains. Keep your fingers crossed.

Airdate: April 30, 2010