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Report details fire crews' use of emergency shelters when overtaken by Minnesota wildfire

An area of the Pagami Creek wildfire shows active burning and creates a large smoke plume in this aerial photograph in September 2011 in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northeastern Minnesota. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Forest Service crews working to warn Boundary Waters campers to leave the area made the right decision when they deployed their fire shelters on Insula Lake to avoid last September's raging Pagami Creek Fire.

That's the overall finding of a 33-page internal Forest Service report released Thursday that's intended to use serious incidents as learning points for wildland firefighters. The report also suggests that wilderness rangers and other crews should have had better communications with officials managing the fire -- that some public safety crews in the wilderness didn't know how close they were to the fire until it was too late to paddle to safety.

"Incoming information was incomplete; maps were based on that information; managers made decisions based on those maps, and field personnel didn't know what the maps were showing," the report notes in one analysis. "So everyone had incomplete intel (and) the intel they had wasn't communicated fully."

But the report also noted that Forest Service officials in charge of managing firefighting efforts couldn't have known that the fire would move as rapidly as it did, placing the crews in harm's way. Fire officials may need to view the unprecedented fire speed as a new norm under drier, windier conditions, the report said.

"We're seeing more extreme weather in different parts of the country, and our models have not been tested under these new conditions," the report notes one fire official explaining.

In this case the report says the six crewmembers "absolutely made the right choice to deploy. It shows there was some discussion before they did it, and maybe they were too conservative, but that in the end it was exactly the situation when fire shelter should be used," Kris Reichenbach, spokeswoman for the Superior National Forest, told the News Tribune.

A fire shelter is a small, tent-like, heat-resistant covering that wildland firefighters carry in their packs or on their belts. Deploying a fire shelter is often a risky, last-option venture, and some wildland firefighters have died in their shelters. But the shelters also have been credited with dozens of lives saved, and the Forest Service wants to make sure firefighters don't die with the shelters still on their belts.

Because the deployment of fire shelters, called an entrapment, means all other options for escape were exhausted, the Forest Service conducts the review to know what happened leading up to the deployment. The report is not used to assess any blame or for any disciplinary purposes, Reichenbach noted.

"The idea is to use the document to avoid a similar situation, if possible, in the future," Reichenbach said. "It's told almost in a story format so people can relate to it, so it might have more impact on safety on a national level."

FASTER AND HOTTER THAN EXPECTED

On the morning of Sept. 12, on a day when the fire burned across an incredible 16 miles and 70,000 acres, Forest Service public safety crews were assigned to restrict traffic, close campsites and order BWCAW campers to leave the area.

But the fire came upon them on Insula Lake faster and hotter than anyone expected. While fire officials thought the crews were a day or two ahead of the flames, eight crew members by noon found themselves trying to escape the raging fire.

Two abandoned their canoe and sought refuge in the lake, sharing a single fire shelter. Four others deployed fire shelters on a small island. Two others were picked up by floatplane just as the approaching fire changed course. All survived without major injury.

The crews reported burning embers raining down upon them "like someone shooting machine guns at them," as well as thick smoke and strong winds created by the fire, which also created high waves and unsafe conditions on the water.

According to the report, crew members reported feeling the heat on their backs as they tried to paddle away from the fire, and the thick smoke turned day into night. One ranger turned her headlamp backward so the canoe behind them could see to follow. They said the roar of the fire was deafening, that breathing was difficult and that burning embers were everywhere.

When the story was first reported in September, Forest Service officials said the shelters likely saved the crews' lives, or at least prevented serious burns and smoke inhalation.

The report said unusual fire behavior was the critical factor in the Pagami Creek entrapments. The fire "moved in ways that were not only unexpected, but totally unprecedented for generations of firefighters and land managers in the area. Fire intensity stretched the operation and created problems where the system was functional -- even successful -- under normal conditions."

The fire shelter report is the second of several internal Forest Service reports on incidents surrounding the fire, the largest forest fire in the state in more than a half-century.

The first, released last winter, dealt with an overturned canoe carrying firefighters. A final report -- which will include state, regional and national assessments of how the fire was handled by the Forest Service -- is expected later in June. The Pagami Creek fire started small with a lightning strike on Aug. 18, smoldered for days during a severe drought, then fanned into an inferno on Sept. 12 during a run of unseasonably warm, dry and windy days. It slowed but continued burning until October and eventually burned across 93,000 acres, most if it within the BWCAW. No one was hurt and no private land was damaged. Several campsites remain closed, but most areas of the wilderness are open to regular canoe travel.

Among the fire shelter report's other points:

# Fire shelter training is working. Crew members said they replayed the training video in their heads and took calm, timely action while preparing to deploy shelters thanks to their annual training.

# Fire shelters should be considered tools rather than a last resort.

# Considering lakes as safe zones needs to be re-evaluated. Crews found that the wall of fire at the fire front burned right across the lake without slowing, dropping wind-whipped embers ahead of the flames.

# The Forest Service should consider using more aircraft and motorboats sooner in an incident to close camping areas and inform the public even in the BWCAW where crews generally don't use motorized transportation.

# The Forest Service should improve real-time communication between fire managers and field personnel to recognize early signs the situation is changing or the plan is not working.

# Crews in the field during a fire should report directly to the fire operations management team rather than their usual managers.

# The Forest Service should investigate technology to provide fire commanders with real time location of all field operations personnel.

# Field crews should be more forceful when declaring an emergency situation. At one point the crews in peril were told to get off a radio channel because dispatchers didn't perceive they were in an emergency.

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