The clear, blue skies over Snowbank Lake filled with billowing smoke on October 11, as the Forest Service set a prescribed fire in timber that was blown down in the July 1999 windstorm. Fire experts consider the controlled burn just the first of many more to come in and near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Dead trees become candles, and then torches. Balsam firs vanish in crackling explosions of flame. Black and gray billows from the woods and circle into a growing column. See larger image. (MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher)
IT WAS THE PERFECT DAY for a fire on the banks of Snowbank Lake, which lies across the border of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The lake also marks the western tip of the massive blow-down area stretching from near Ely, almost 30 miles east across the wilderness to the Gunflint Trail.
The woods covering the peninsula here are a green-and-gold patchwork of standing pine and aspen, but it's a pattern stuck like a pincushion with broken trees. Some lean heavily to the east; others lie broken on the forest floor.
Fire boss Jim Hines tells his crew that wind and humidity are just right for a vigorous burn; but a burn that firefighters can keep under control. The target area is almost completely surrounded by water, and the prevailing winds would carry any flaming material out over the lake.
At just-under 100 acres, this is a relatively small fire.
"This is like an anchor point," Hines says. "We're starting here with some smaller burns and then progressively move across the landscape until we get the whole thing taken care of."
In early October, the Forest Service staff burned two sections of blown-down timber near northeast Minnesota's Gunflint Trail. They found some of the trees blown down in the same 1999 storm burned hotter than expected. The Snowbank will provide more information as the Forest Service prepares even larger fires of 1,000 acres or more.
A few area residents have gathered to witness the fire. Some folks are concerned about the prescribed fire. It was a prescribed burn that got out of control in New Mexico, incinerating thousands of acres.
For this burn, firefighters take to boats. Small float planes are soon circling above, to keep an eye on the fire, and to help douse any hot spots should the fire get away. This fire starts from the air too. A black-and-white helicopter hovers low over the tree line, swinging a red barrel below. Soon, flaming gasoline is falling from the barrel and orange flames begin exploding in the aspen and pines.
A black-and-white helicopter hovers low over the tree line, swinging a red barrel below. Soon, flaming gasoline is falling from the barrel and orange flames begin exploding in the aspen and pines. See larger image. (MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher)
Dead trees become candles, and then torches. Balsam firs vanish in crackling explosions of flame. Black and gray billows from the woods and circle into a growing column that spreads over the blue water. A wonderful smell of burning wood becomes a choking blanket of heat and ash. Soon, the winds pick up - burning embers; leaves, bits of wood are flying from the woods.
The Forest Service's Andy Drange fought fires in Montana for much of the summer. He's seen the way fire creates its own wind.
"The fire needs oxygen, so it sucks in all the oxygen it can get and creates wind like this," he says.
But the fire remains under control. It does what it's supposed to do.
Floating in a small boat, a safe distance away, Forest Service spokesman Mark Van Every says the burn has gone well.
"It's about what we anticipated; and things are staying within the containment lines. We're not getting any spotting and the smoke dispersal seems to be going very well," says Every.
Most of the work on this fire finished Wednesday, although mopping up could take a week. But the fire crews have plenty more to do. Many of them were in Canada's Quetico Provincial Park the next day as Canadian officials lit a much larger fire just north of the BWCAW.
If the weather holds up, several more fires will be set, before the season's first snows bring the fall fire season to an end.