More than a week has passed since Monday, September 12th, when the Pagami Creek Fire made its historic run. Driven by high temperatures, high winds and long term drought, the fire ran more than 15 miles to the east and south in one afternoon. Last week I described that day here at Sawbill as “apocalyptic.” Little did I know. As the pictures and descriptions come in from fire that day, I became more and more frightened. It now seems clear that if the wind hadn’t shifted, Sawbill would have been engulfed in the biggest fire-storm in the recorded history of the Midwest. We are feeling very, very lucky and grateful.
A couple of days before the fire blew up, we delivered a very nice older couple from California, the Furmans, to Kawishiwi Lake to start a two week canoe trip through the wilderness back to Sawbill. Given their somewhat advanced age and the sheer volume of their food and gear, they planned to move very slowly up to Polly Lake and then back to Sawbill through the chain of lakes with ladies’ names: Hazel, Phoebe, Grace and Beth. They were on Polly Lake on the Monday when the heart of the fire came within a hundred yards of the south end of Polly Lake. Other campers on the lake reported and documented flames hundreds of feet in the air, extremely high winds and a smoke plume that towered more than 30 thousand feet in the air.
The Forest Service immediately began evacuating people from Polly and the Lady Chain. Numerous low level flights were made, checking every campsite and portage. Wilderness rangers patrolled by canoe and gradually, over the next couple of days, everyone straggled out. Eventually, everyone was out of the wilderness – except for the Furmans. As several more days went by and they didn’t appear, the Forest Service started to actively search for them, with increasing urgency as time went by. Finally, after nearly a week of looking, the helicopter located them about half way between Polly and Sawbill. Wilderness rangers canoed in and escorted them slowly back to Sawbill. When they arrived here, I asked them if they weren’t concerned about the fire, especially on Polly where the raging inferno was less than a mile away. Mrs. Furman replied that they had been completely unaware of the fire throughout their trip. She said, “If there was a fire, shouldn’t we have seen smoke?” Apparently, they had selected a north facing site on Polly and never saw the flames or the giant smoke plume. In the following days, the winds and rain kept the smoke low and moving away from them. On their campsites, they had a small tent and kept the canoe well up in the woods, so the searchers were unable to spot them. They had a wonderful, relaxing vacation while a living hell raged just out of sight. They left Sawbill happy to spend the rest of their vacation driving around Lake Superior before catching their flight back to California.
While the fire has definitely depressed the number of visitors, especially here at Sawbill, the presence of more than 800 firefighters has been a major boon for the local economy, especially for Ely. Today, we received a trail food order for 46 fire fighters for a week. The gentleman placing the order said that he had basically bought all the trail food available in Ely over the last week, so has been forced to shop further away. He called back an hour later and wondered if we could pack food for an additional 50 for the week. Alas, he has now cleaned out all the trail food at Sawbill as well. A lot of money is spent in a hurry during natural disasters, but I’ve been impressed with how carefully the fire staff monitors the costs. They aren’t looking for bargains, but they are careful to protect the taxpayers money as much as they can. They also make an effort to spend as much of the money as they can locally, knowing full well that they are filling in for local economy that has just taken a big hit.
On the bright side of things, we have received an inch and a half of rain here at Sawbill in the last few days. Even though warmer, dryer weather is predicted for the week, time is on our side with shorter days, cooler nights and eventually winters quiet grip on the land. I love winter, but I’ll never be so glad to see it as I am this year.