For the first time in 45 years, multiple wildfires caused the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to close down to visitors this summer. I had the unique opportunity to spend 28 days in a row fighting fires, August through September, with 14 of those days on the John Ek in the BWCA.
A spring wildfire season is expected every year in Minnesota. The severe drought that had been building since last fall prolonged this season through the summer and into fall. Wildland fire resources were stretched thin across the state, with most of the state’s wildland firefighters staged for initial attack or dedicated to an extended incident.
In mid-August, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources activated its ready reserve for the second time this year. Ready reserve is activated when fire indices are near critical or extreme and qualified personnel are limited. It specifies that all available wildfire qualified personnel who work for the DNR should place themselves on the availability list for possible deployment to an active fire or to support local wildland fire staff.
I have been a part of the DNR family for three years; assisting the divisions of Fish and Wildlife, and Ecological and Water Resources, with land management activities that include prescribed burning, monitoring projects and habitat enhancement in the northwest region of the state. Although wildland fire plays a minor role in my position, as a certified Type 1 firefighter and the activation of ready reserve, I submitted my availability to support the need.
Immediately, I was asked to backfill staffing needs at other offices. I staged in the towns of Baudette and Brainerd, before receiving a call from the duty officer inquiring if I would be available to complete a 14-day assignment in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. I received the call on a Friday afternoon, and by that evening I was committed to the John Ek -- a 1,300-acre wildfire south of the Seagull Guard Station. The following morning, I was en route to the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids to meet the crew I would work with over the next 14 days.
I was assigned to a 10-person module of firefighters who had a wide array of experience with DNR forestry, wildlife, parks and trails. With the anticipation of a seaplane ride into the wilderness lingering in the back of our minds, we geared up, were briefed on our assignment and began our commute up the Gunflint Trail. Unfortunately, the weather was uncooperative over the coming days to allow for firefighters to be safely flown into the fire.
Upon arrival, we found crews were already constructing and enhancing contingency lines around the fire to prevent it from spreading outside the perimeter. Our module was assigned to protect infrastructure. We were tasked with structure protection and to establish “firewise” mitigations on remote structures along the Gunflint Trail. To “firewise” a property means to create a defensible space by reducing potential sources of fuel around the home. All vegetation can pose as a potential fuel for fire to spread. By removing and reducing the vegetation around a structure, one can reduce the fire’s intensity and make it safer for firefighters to defend the home.
Our module canoed out to remote structures and focused on removing vegetation within 50 feet of the main dwelling. We also removed ladder fuels, or low-hanging tree limbs that could create a corridor for fire to travel up into the crowns of trees. In the event of an advancing wildfire, firefighters are often tasked with determining which homes can be defended safely based on survivable space. Firefighter safety is always the top priority. Taking measures to “firewise” a property prior to a major wildfire can increase a home’s chances of surviving the impact of a wildfire and reduces the risk to firefighters must face when defending a home.
By the 14th day of our assignment, aerial observations indicated that the cooler temperatures and precipitation had reduced the fire’s activity to a point that a smaller fire organization would be able to manage the fire. The Type 3 Incident Management Team and the U.S. Forest Service agreed to turn the management of the John Ek over to the local Superior National Forest staff.
I am abundantly grateful for every assignment. Engaging with like-minded, passionate individuals is such a treat. Forging connections seems innate, and the abundance of knowledge, experience and skill that every firefighter brings to the crew creates unlimited opportunity for personal and professional growth. Every wildfire role is unique. The people and places may change but the end state is always the same — everyone makes it home safe.
Self-discovery on the fire line is a common occurrence. It is a place where wildland firefighters feel at peace amid chaos. Waking up to the beauty of the Boundary Waters and paddling across its pristine waters while surrounded by others whose passion for this work runs deep, one can’t help but acknowledge that despite the inherent risk and physical requirements for the job, this is rewarding work.
Hayley Larson is a Northland Outdoors ambassador