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Fire crews are standing by at forestry stations across the state, but resources are stretched thin because so many areas are dry and so many fires are starting each day, fire officials said. (2011 file / News Tribune)

A year after massive Minnesota wildfire, feds shelve 'let it burn' forest fire policy

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Nearly one year after a tiny wilderness fire exploded into Minnesota's largest forest fire in more than 70 years, a temporary U.S. Forest Service policy will now put that kind of fire out before it can grow.

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Forest supervisors across the 193 million-acre national forest system have been directed to attack and snuff wilderness fires so money, personnel, aircraft and other equipment aren't tied up fighting fires that started small and grew out of control.

The directive has put on hold the usual Forest Service fire policy to often let fires burn across the agency's 429 wilderness areas that cover more than 36 million acres.

The new policy is aimed at saving money and keeping wildland firefighters where they are most needed -- near developed, populated areas -- and isn't related to last year's Pagami Creek Fire near Ely, said Brenda Halter, supervisor of the Superior National Forest.

"It's a national directive that means we're going to be much more aggressively suppressing wildfires in wilderness,'' Halter told the News Tribune.

While timely rain has limited fires so far this summer, the August-September period is traditionally a drier, more fire-prone time in the BWCAW. That could mean ample work for wilderness and fire crews in coming weeks.

"We're going to be running on and suppressing more fires than you've seen in the recent past ... depending on the weather, of course," Halter said.

The directive came down last month as the national system of wildfire management was stressed with huge fires in Colorado and other western states, Halter said. That already-taxed national firefighting system can ill afford to send resources to a fire that could have been easily snuffed early on.

If the same policy had been in place last year, the Pagami Creek Fire would have been extinguished days after it started and never made headlines.

That fire started on Aug. 18 with a lightning strike and, like hundreds of others, burned slowly at first. Most of those lightning fires in the 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness smolder and die without getting big. And even if the fires grow, Forest Service policy has been to allow them to burn to help renew the forest, a cycle that has shaped the forest for millennia.

But by the time Forest Service fire officials realized the Pagami Creek fire could grow too big and possibly escape the wilderness -- thanks to unprecedented dry, hot and windy conditions -- it was too late. On Sept. 12 alone it exploded across 70,000 acres as crews and campers scrambled to get out of the way. It took another month, nearly 1,000 firefighters from across the country and autumn rains and snow before the fire was officially declared out, having burned across 93,000 acres. The battle cost more than $23 million.

It was the Forest Service's policy of letting wilderness fires burn that most angered some local residents and politicians, who said the policy should be changed or at least revisited.

Tom Pearson, co-owner of the Stony River Sport Shop and Café in Isabella, which was threatened for a time by the Pagami Creek fire, said the changed Forest Service policy is long overdue. Pearson has been critical of the decision to allow the Pagami fire to grow.

"That's very good news. That should be their policy all the time. Nip it in the bud,'' Pearson said.

Halter said the temporary directive is being reviewed regularly and will likely be set aside as winter snows put an end to the 2012 fire season. She said there's been no change in the long-term federal policy of using wildfires as a management tool.

There's also been no change in the policy to use the least-mechanized effort possible to douse wilderness fires -- meaning many may be hit with crews in canoes using hand tools. Only if that doesn't work would aircraft be used.

Betsy Daub, policy director of the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness, said the group continues to support allowing fires to burn within the wilderness, but it also appreciates the predicament the Forest Service is in.

"We understand they are strapped for resources right now and that they don't want to have to pull resources out of the West, where houses are burning,'' Daub said. "But (Halter) also made it clear that this is temporary and, when the situation improves, that they'll go back to the long-term policy."

Even after politicians winced at the "let it burn'' policy after the Pagami fire, Halter said there has been no major discussion within the agency about changing the long-term wilderness fire policy. Allowing small fires to burn actually removes the fuel to prevent big fires later, she noted. Wilderness fires also help spur the growth of young trees, which are more likely to resist fire.

Forest Service leaders "have been very clear that using fire to meet regeneration objectives in wilderness is going to remain the long-term policy,'' she said. "Suppressing every fire is not a good solution. ... We've seen clearly that 100 years of trying to put every fire out only led to conditions that created catastrophic fires today."

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