It's hard to imagine a landscape so full of water (and frozen under snow for over half the year) could be a fire environment. When most people think of the wildfire scene, they think of California or maybe Idaho and Arizona. Few people immediately consider northern Minnesota a fi re environment beyond the campfires which toast your marshmallows at a family reunion or Boy Scout camp. However, the rocky outcrops and thin ground debris make perfect conditions for fires during dry weather in the spring, summer, and fall. Lightning, sheer numbers of people recreating, lack of easy access, and the blowdown fuel stockpile from storms in years past make the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Superior National Forest the site where firefighters from all over learn what it's like to fight fire in lake country.
Paddle, Portage, Pump
When you sit down to watch Planes: Fire and Rescue with your kids, know that Disney did a pretty good job of illustrating wildland fire (from an imaginary planes perspective) in an amusing and animated way only Disney can accomplish. They got a lot right, including the use of "Thunderstruck" as an unofficial anthem, which though I've never heard it played from loudspeakers from a field station, is probably on every firefighters playlist for workouts. However, a lot of the details for a Minnesota kid would be different. We no longer have the CL-215s which evoked vintage style and grace, albeit noisily as they skimmed the surface of lakes to scoop water. We do have a lot of smaller aircraft (a la Dusty Crophopper-esque) SEATs (single engine air tankers) and helicopters. The copious access to water in most situations makes fighting fire here all about the aqua! Portable pumps, lots of hose, and help from aircraft with water dropping capabilities gets the job done.
We do a lot of paddling and we don't have a real need for parachuting firefighters into even our remote wilderness fires--other aircraft drop them off safely on the ground or onto a lake with canoes. We order in hotshot crews from out of state, like our regional crew, the Midewin Interagency Hotshot Crew from Illinois, or crews from the western states, before that side of the country heats up later in the summer. Mainly though, I remember the irony of fighting fire while having soaking wet feet, most of the time in Minnesota. Not that surprising in lake country, but funny nonetheless. Water is such a gift for crews in this area - from the water scooping planes and buckets on the end of helicopter long lines or just being able to back up to a lake and draft water into the fire engine, we use the resource here.
Can You Canoe?
Most crews from out of state will be given a lesson in paddling and a sort of Canoe 101. They will be handed a Minnesota fire shelter--a PFD--and for many, this is the first time they've balanced their center of gravity in a low profile craft while trying to sit comfortably, the whole time feeling as if they're going to lose it and fall into the water. Some do.
By the end of 14 days of working a fire, a 45 minute paddle from your work area in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to your campsite (which is still in cooperation with as many wilderness rules as can be adhered to safely), everyone can list 'proficient paddler' on their red cards (if it were a qualification) by the end of the assignment. It's actually quite meditative and Zen-like--having experienced this commute on several occasions, it can be said that road rage would disappear entirely if we eliminated the road portion and sent everyone to work via canoe!
Although sometimes crews are flown in with canoes to expedite their initial attack on the fire, once the immediate danger is over, it means you're getting out the more adventurous way. Portaging the canoes, packs, pumps, trash, wet hose (some fires have miles upon miles of woven hose strung out from pumping site to pumping site), empty fuel cans, chainsaws, and all of your personal gear. It all has to come out with the hope that once the fire is over we're leaving the wilderness nearly pristine--if a little charred--to be enjoyed by future generations as if no one was ever there at all.
Because of the wilderness values, at times firefighters will use crosscut saws and other non-motorized methods for attacking the fires and clearing debris. All of these elements add to the experience and make fighting fire in Minnesota's lake country truly remarkable
Spiked Out: Camp Life
Most times, the crew is set up with a wilderness advisor or an employee who regularly works and paddles in the wilderness, interacting with the public paddlers on holiday in the forest. They help firefighters minimize the impact of their work on the site (everything from the best place to set up a tent in a primitive area to rehabbing the goat trails and escape routes which form after days of being in the same area.) They camp and work with the crew and instill a little bit of wilderness knowledge and skill each day.
Each crew finds their rhythm differently, but usually the camp cooking schedule looks a little like this--a few folks will prepare meals for the day and the rest of the crew will be in charge of cleaning up. Camp stoves and fire grates are the tools of the trade if the entire group isn't eating from a cardboard box filled with an assortment of MREs (meals ready to eat). These calorie-packed brown packages come in varieties such as Jambalaya, Chicken Tetrazzini, Beef Stew, and Meatloaf. Some aren't so bad, and some, like the meatloaf have such fine ingredients and taste, even the camp robbers won't eat them! There's no high-grading flavors amongst crew members - just reach in and enjoy whatever entrée you pull out. They also have added sides and even desserts--nacho cheese sauce, lemon-lime powered drink mix, and lemon poppy seed pound cake. The entire meal can be heated in the package from which it came, since a chemical heat source is included. It's all possible using a phrase no chef ever uttered: Just add water!
Many times, the crews working Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness fires get a treat like no other "fire camp" can provide--resort packs. These fresh food packs outfitters supply to canoeists are sometimes on the menu for spike camps (those fire folks staying out in the wilderness and away from civilization, in self-supported mini camping situations) and are delicious. It's rare to get fresh eggs and even meats while out on wildfires. Many conversations after twelve days in the middle of Mother Nature include chats about what would be better savored that day: a beer or a steak? Some people are in the opposite viewpoint and shut down any conversations about "real food" and libations - they just cannot take even talking about things unavailable to the crew and insist on talking about something else. Occasions like having fresh food (which are true treats--from resort packs here in Minnesota to orchard fresh fruits from farmers out West and all that's in between) and can really liven up the mood in camp.
Since it always comes up... though in the situation little attention is paid to worrying about it, is the shower situation. In large camps in roaded areas, shower trailers or sometimes county facilities are used for keeping hygiene at the forefront. In the forest, some folks have the sponge-bath equivalent of backpacking gear and bring body wipes (moist towellettes which are supersized) and some take advantage of the lakes for a quick dip (another luxury we're afforded with our ubiquitous lakes and abundance here!). Many will simply admit that after days of sweat and water and ash and sunblock, there is a day which you will hit your stink stride and then it plateaus. Everyone smells a little less fresh than those folks in town. It's just a fire thing. Sleep and a bite to eat will always trump the need for a shower, even if one is available. Always.
Flames might be more spectacular when seen from the other side of a valley or blazing up the side of a mountain, or burning with landmarks such as the Grand Canyon or Arches in the backdrop, but nothing is more satisfying after a day of sweat and sunblock crusted on your face and wet feet and ash like morbid paper mache, than to fall asleep in a tent being serenaded by frogs in a premier wilderness under the darkest skies imaginable.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Ham Lake wildfire which burned over 75,000 acres in the very northeastern corner of the arrowhead, up the very popular Gunflint Trail (and officially, about half of those acres were in Ontario, as well, making it an international effort with our northern neighbors). The tragic fires of 1918 in the Cloquet area burned around a quarter of a million acres with huge loss to life and property and still hold the unwanted record of being the state's largest loss in history.
The Ham Lake Fire started on May 5th, 2007 and is being commemorated this year with a temporary exhibit at the Chik-wauk Museum, which sits at the very end of the Gunflint Trail. The museum which normally houses many heirlooms, artifacts, and colorful tales of the area heritage includes information about the historic wildfire and will be worth the long trek up the trail to see.
For many, the tale is one which is bittersweet. After so many fire folks were called in to help battle the blaze, a large area was left blackened. Stobs of once regal pines left standing forlorn in a moonscape expanse of islands. Snags standing sentinel over the beautiful waters of the wilderness. An area very popular with tourists and locals alike and a huge source of economic vitality in the area, burnt to a crisp.
The Gunflint Green Up
Community is one characteristic which stood the test of time and persists today in the area and in our state. It's part of what makes Minnesota nice, right? Well, the Gunflint Trail community banded together and with partnerships made by locals, Hungry Jack Outfitters, the Gunflint Lodge, many other area lodges, the US Forest Service, and too many others to name here (but Google it, it's a fine bit of backstory how this group developed and how many were touched by the fire) the people of the area (and as far off as the Twin Cities and beyond) mounted a huge effort to rival the flames themselves and joined forces to initiate the Gunflint Green Up Society, which led to The Gunflint Green Up. In the fall and winter of 2007, extensive field reconnaissance and planning was completed to determine the best sites for planting trees the following spring.
When May 2008 rolled around, one year after the fire had ravaged the area; about 500 volunteers planted 50,000 new seedlings on 250 acres of the burned forest land. People traveled to be part of what shaped up to be a showing of environmental stewardship as well as a social gathering of friends and neighbors. The volunteers woke to inches of fresh snow, but were not deterred and went on to have a successful day, adding strokes of green with the pine seedlings to the ashen hills. This continued on as an annual event for several years following the fire--some volunteers got the opportunity to "release" the growing seedlings (many of which they'd planted themselves in the prior green-up endeavors) by cutting back brush from surrounding undergrowth to allow sunlight to reach the pine seedlings.
The Gunflint Trail is still gorgeous and in many ways, now that the smoke has cleared, this is just a chapter in the very colorful and vibrant history of the area. You can still see the burned area easily on a pontoon cruise around Gunflint Lake. Longtime Gunflint Lodge owner (which just changed hands in 2016 to new owners), Bruce Kerfoot recalls feeding firefighters and opening up the lodge with a welcoming embrace to those who were helping to combat the flames. There is really no better way to say thank you than by filling a firefighter's belly with fresh greens, hot food, a shower, and a place to lay their head for the night--it's especially nice when the food is gourmet and the lodge is studded with character and friendly people!
The lodge was the backdrop for the festivities taking place long after the fire too, holding a dinner and dance as part of the Gunflint Green Up event to further take the chance to turn a sad situation into a reason to come together anew. Just as it has for centuries, fi re continues to change the landscape in Minnesota, so too will our relationship with fire evolve and our methods and means for safely living with fire, even in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
A Brief Fire Primer
Firefighters must take an introductory training course (40 hours) which includes weather, fire behavior, and basic concepts of firefighting. This first step is then combined with a physical standard test - The Work Capacity Test, a.k.a. "the Pack Test," so named for the pack or vest you carry which weighs 45 pounds. The walk is three miles and must be completed in less than 45 minutes in order to pass. This is a national standard and is the same test which allows folks to "go out West" to fight fire elsewhere. Physical condition is paramount to a person's success on the fire line. Firefighters will spend a large chunk of their off -time devoted to physical training. Aside from the military or maybe service in the Peace Corps, few other experiences will bring you so close with your coworkers.
Firefighters sometimes spend weeks, months, or even the entire year sleeping, eating, working, and playing together as a unit. Crews are usually 20 people. They can be a unit working together every day (such as the professional Type I "Hotshot" crews - such as the Midewin Interagency Hotshot Crew out of Illinois) or they can be several firefighters from one region who come together to form a crew of strangers and emerge 14 days later life-long buddies. It's often fun to see folks from past crews in camp or on the line year to year. Mini reunions occur each season. Good boots are essential. Sawyers are the chainsaw experts and swampers clear the brush, carry the fuel and tools, and keep tabs on the radio and general safety around the saws. Many tools are used in the act of putting out a fire - not just aircraft, pumps, and hose, but also Pulaskis, rakes, Rhinos, McLeods, shovels, and even sometimes swatters. Firefighters train, drill, eat, sleep, and breathe safety. There are orders and standards and watch outs and all sorts of things to learn in order to keep their "situational awareness" on point.
If you're interested in learning more about becoming a wildland firefighter, Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids, MN is home to a program devoted to training and fi re planning. Interested in fire history and want to know more about the Ham Lake fi re of 2007 or the Gunflint Green Up? There is a special, temporary exhibit at the Chik-wauk Museum, situated at the end of the Gunflint Trail, outside of Grand Marais, MN
Amanda Jones is a freelance writer in northern Minnesota. While she traded fighting fires for the home fires a few years ago, she stays involved each year dispatching crews locally and across the country. Always looking for adventure, she's usually at large with her family, exploring.