Forest Service lays ground for burn near Ely

Published 9:30 am Wednesday, August 28, 2013

ELY — As catastrophic forest fires burn across the western United States, forest managers in northern Minnesota are laying the groundwork for a deliberate fire in hopes of preventing similar blazes.

They’re concerned about the abundance of balsam fir in the thick pine forest north of Ely along the Echo Trail and on the north arm of Burntside Lake, where there are cabins and two YMCA camps.

“There could be up to 200 kids at those camps on a hot summer day,” said Timo Rova, fire management officer for the western Superior National Forest.

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The balsam fir is native to the region, but the species has proliferated over the past century because foresters would rapidly extinguish nearly every wildfire that flared up in the area. That allowed the highly flammable fir to grow unnaturally thick underneath the canopy of white and red pines. They can carry a fire up into the crowns of the taller trees, allowing a wildfire to spread rapidly by jumping between treetops.

To try to prevent that, the Forest Service has recommended a prescribed burn of 1,452 acres. Firefighters construct lines around the area to be burned, wait until conditions are optimal, and burn in from the edges. Trucks and planes are on hand in case the fire needs to be put out.

Concerned homeowners have until the end of September to appeal the Forest Service’s decision. Some say it’s not worth the risk.

“We’re on a dead end road, there’s only one way in and one way out, and if the fire jumps the road here, you’re not getting out,” said Jerry Taylor, who lives at the end of North Arm Road.

The Taylors support removing balsam fir. In fact, their driveway is lined with stacks of balsam cut with the help of a $350,000 government grant to thin trees from private property. Claire Taylor said she wants to cut more balsam down rather than burn it.

Jerry Taylor pointed to the Pagami Creek Fire on the other side of Ely two years ago as a reason not to thin the forest through burning. That wasn’t a prescribed fire, but the Forest Service allowed it to burn for several weeks because it was considered beneficial. Then gusty winds blew it out of control, burning nearly 145 square miles.

The risk of that happening with a prescribed fire is low, said Superior National Forest District Ranger Scott Snelson.

“We know the outcome of no prescribed fire,” he said. “And that’s increased fire frequency, and increased fire intensity.”