Boundary Waters Burning, but OK for Paddlers

2,700 acre wildfire east of Ely, Minn. not having dramatic impact on paddling opportunities

By Tim Mutrie

With wildfires affecting some 2,700-acres of northeastern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, paddlers are being forewarned of “rolling closures” in certain burn zones. Still, officials and locals are saying the Pagami Creek Fire—aflame since it was first detected, Aug. 18, after a lightning strike—has yet to seriously impact paddlers and paddling opportunities. The burn zone, as of Saturday, was about 14 miles east of Ely, Minn., and south of the Number Lakes chain (Lakes 1, 2, 3, 4).

“Certain areas are covered with smoke and there’s fires all over the place, but as far as day-use of Boundary Waters goes, it hasn’t hampered much,” Adam Macht, the outfitting manager at Piragis Northwoods, a retailer and outfitter in downtown Ely, told C&K on Friday. “But it is a good reminder—people can see what’s going on with the conditions—and we’re stressing that people need to be really careful with their fires.”

With a firefighting crew numbering 78 people, as of Saturday, fire managers are employing different strategies on the fire’s north and south fronts, according to officials. Active firefighting efforts are being conducted to the north, where fire represents the greatest threat to people and property, but the burning is being allowed to run its natural course on the south. (Updated reports on the Pagami Fire are being posted to inciweb.org; paddlers may also call the fire information number at 218-365-3177.)

A map of Boundary Waters' Pagami Creek Fire, as of Sunday afternoon. Photo: inciweb.org

“Wildfires are very sorts of fluid incidents, so the areas being impacted are changing every day, and rolling closures are happening,” Daria Day, a public information office on the Pagami Fire, told C&K in an interview.

She added, “Historically, fires would move through this area regularly, and certainly this fire is not near as large as any of the fires we’ve had in the last ten years in the Boundary Waters. But it’s an interesting fire. …. And when we have a naturally-caused fire burning within a wilderness area, because of the resource benefit, essentially [fire managers] are allowing it to do the good that it can within this ecosystem.”

Day noted that Boundary Waters’ abundant Jack pine trees only release seeds in fires. “When we took this over, our primary objective was to make sure the fire did not leave the wilderness area or threaten private or public property,” she said, adding, “The northern portion of the fire is being patrolled, secured and mopped up daily.”

The weather has been, according to local outfitter Macht, “warm and sunny for, boy, seems like forever now,” he said. “We haven’t had any rain, and they’re saying no rain til Monday in the forecast.”

Public safety crews, comprised of wilderness rangers from the U.S. Forest Service, are out in boats in the area, Day said, meeting with paddlers and advising them of the latest conditions and closures. Fire crews are also using canoes and other craft to ferry gear and manpower to areas, according to Day.

“I would stress that all of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area remains a wonderful area for paddlers to visit. If paddlers are going to be visiting near the fire affected areas, we’d ask them to be mindful and stay at least 100 yards away from damaged areas,” she said.

Still, as yet, “It’s certainly not a dramatic threat to paddlers in any way,” Day added.

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