A Fire Perspective: 200 Years of Wildfires

Few natural processes inspire the fear and awe that wildfires do. And in nature, fire is a seeming paradox of death and new life. Gigantic, swirling infernos which engulf the landscape in an unheeding wall of flame become landscape-level scars healed by green shoots and wildflowers. And here in the southern edge of the boreal forest, our landscape is defined by it. Last year, 2021, saw some of the dryest conditions in some time and the nearly unprecedented total-closure of the BWCA (something which hasn’t happened since 1976.) With a good rainfall year this year, we had time to reflect on how two years can be so different and how 2021 was defined by drought and fire. The Quetico of course saw massive wildfires last year with a burned landscape which dwarfs Pagami Creek (the largest MN wildfire in the last 100 years.) The U.S. side also saw loads of fires with a couple destructive ones, namely Greenwood and Bezhik (both destroyed structures) but none which compared in size to the big ones of the last 20 years: Pagami, Ham, or Cavity. It’s interesting to look at all of the fires these past 23 years since the ’99 blowdown to see and understand how nature is both clearing that remaining debris and righting a broken fire ecology put on hold throughout a “Smoky the Bear, put it out” policies of the last century. With somewhere in the range of a quarter of a million acres burned between wildfires and prescribed burns in the BWCA in the last 25 years, it’s intriguing to understand facts and figures in terms of the history of the landscape and a perspective of fire on a landscape scale.

For this article, I put together maps of fires categorized in quarter-century (25 year) periods. I divided the 25 years at the century mark (so the current fire period is 2000-2024.) These maps go back 200 years through our current big flare up of fires, some of the break-out burns through the latter part of the 20th century, the “put-it-out” era, the big logging era, and some of the earlier “natural” fire regime. The results are pretty fascinating. That said, though I tried to be as thorough as I could, these maps are incomplete in that they don’t cover every fire. They cover most of the large, landscape-altering fires of the past 200 years, but evidence of smaller fires . They rely on the incredible data set composed by Miron Heinselman up into the 70s. For those who don’t understand how a scientist like Miron was able to decipher when and where fires burned in the past century, it’s truly fascinating. When I have taught similar methods to kids or adults, I tend to talk about it in terms of telling the story of a landscape. Just because you and I weren’t there doesn’t mean we can’t read the story if we know how. Trees such as Jack Pine and Aspen, which commonly regrow after fires, can be aged either by cutting them down and counting the rings or, less intrusively, using a tool known as an increment borer to take a small sample out of the trunk and counting the rings. This method can also be used on large trees which survived past fires but still have scars from those events. For even older fires when the Jack Pine and Aspen have long since died, preserved stumps from the past fires can be compared to climate data gathered by other sources (written/oral history, sediment studies from lake bottoms, or other tree-based records.) It’s big and complicated and I would love to spend a WHOLE article on dendrochronolgy (maybe sometime) but enough rambling on for now. By looking at the large fires of the past 200 years, we gain a glimpse into the workings of the system as a whole and the trends which have played out in that time period. So, without further ado, here’s a fire perspective.

The first map is the current 25 year interval from 2000-Present. This includes the three largest fires in the last 100 years Cavity, Ham, and Pagami. This also includes fires such as John Ek, Bezhik, Famine, Red Eye, Alpine, Turtle, and a plethora of prescribed burns carried out after the ’99 blowdown.

Fires of 2000-2024

Next, we have 1975-1999 which includes the infamous dry spell around 1976 and the Fourth of July blowdown in 1999. This was the end of the era where all fires were extinguished as soon as they were spotted. In fact, prescribed burns were just starting to happen and some fires were being allowed to burn in the wilderness under a watchful eye. However, the massive fuel loads after the blowdown backpedaled this a bit. A few significant fires are included in this era including White Feather, Little Gabbro, Roy, South Temperance, and Sag Lake Corridor (a camper started fire from Romance Lake.) This era in fires began to show a shift where new fires would grow incredibly quickly, faster than people could put them out. In some ways, these fires were pre-cursors to the massive, rapidly growing fires we have experienced this century.

Fires of 1975-1999

1950-1974, the tail-end of the fire tower and fire spotting era when wildfires were put out as soon as they were discovered. A few small fires burned in this era such as the Prayer Lake fire, but the only good sized fire was the Little Indian Sioux fire which took off in logging slash and quickly grew out of control. This era also included prevalent logging in parts of the BWCA. The fires extinguished during this era helped build the fuel loads for eras to come.

Fires of 1950-1974

1925-1949 was definitely part of the heyday of fire towers and fire spotting. The technology for fighting wildfires wasn’t quite there yet to actually be able to stop fires from growing. However, some of the deadliest fires in state history were still fresh in the minds of many so spotting fires before they grew was essential to saving property and lives. A few of the fires during this era started at or near logging camps around Brule in 1929 and grew quickly in the slash and logging debris. In an interesting personal side note, one of the 1929 fires burned the area which sits around Eagle Mountain. Along that trail, not far from the parking lot, is a single large, sickly white pine which survived the fire in 1929. Visitors can directly observe how large the Jack Pine have grown since then (overtaking the old pine) and the scars of that nearly 100 year old fire easily observed on that still-living pine today.

Fires of 1925-1949

1900-1924 The area which became the BWCA took a few large wildfires in this era and a number of smaller ones. A couple of the largest fires in state history were burning further south, but the BWCA still had massive burn zones from the previous decades less prone to burns. Still, various fires burned areas which hadn’t been affected by the massive wildfires of the late 1800s with 1910 in particular being a volatile year for plenty of small wildfires.

Fires of 1900-1924

1875-1899: The era of the big burns and big pine logging. From the 1860s into the end of the 1800s, some of the largest recorded fires in state history impacted the area which is now the BWCA. The 1894 Lac La Croix and the 1875 Insula-Ogish fire burned a combined 305,000 acres. A number of other large burns impact the surrounding area. Both fires reburned areas which had already burned in the previous 25 year interval. These fires originated a large chunk of the BWCA which would mature throughout the wilderness designation and blow over in 1999.

Fires of 1875-1899

1850-1874 also saw massive fires tear through the area which is now the BWCA including the 110,000 acre Little Sioux fire in 1863 and the 275,000 acre Alice/Saganaga fire in 1864. Similarly to the era which followed it, these fires massively shaped the makeup of the forest for generations to come.

Fires of 1850-1874

And 1823-1849, the first chapter in this 200 year window of history. These fires actually helped contain the massive fires which came after. Fires from this era reduced fuel loads which slowed and eventually stopped the big fires from reburning areas already charred before. And this phenomena is actually quite clear when these maps are overlaid as the big fires from the 1860s seem to fall neatly within the space left unburnt in the earlier fires.

Fires of 1823-1849

And finally, the map below shows these past 200 years of fires overlapping on one map. This map lends wonderous perspective of the complicated mosaic of fires, windstorms, and logging which make up the BWCA. Within that, forests are even further diversified as pockets of timber survive rushing fires or stand up to big blowdowns and add generational structure to a forest canopy. To me, this perspective helps to reinforce the understanding that this wilderness is constantly changing. The forests I see today are not the final picture. Though areas like Seagull Lake and the Isabella River are open post-fire zones today, that’s not their future. Fires, windstorms, and a history of logging may created desolate landscapes, and to us that change seems to last, but within the broader story of this ecosystem those changes are but a blink of an eye. Today’s sapling Jack Pine in an open burn zone will be the forests our children camp under and the firewood our grand children and great grandchildren share in their campfires. A glimpse back into 200 years of fires is a glimpse into how those past stories of this place have been written. Through them are explanations for the forests we see today, and from them, perhaps a glimpse of what the future may hold for this incredible and ever-changing landscape.

Author Bio:

Riley Smith

Riley is the Director of Community Engagement and Public Relations for Portage North and Sundog Sport. He comes from a background in wilderness programing and environmental education with four years of BWCA outfitting and guiding before taking this role. In his free time, he can be found out canoeing, hiking, snowshoeing, capturing photography, and writing.
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