The U.S. Forest Service has at least temporarily suspended a policy of letting fires burn in the national forest system, in hopes of saving resources spent on fighting infernos that start small but quickly grow out of control.
The Duluth News Tribune reported Sunday (http://bit.ly/REKym3 ) that the Forest Service will get much more aggressive about suppressing small fires in the wilderness. Such a policy likely would have prevented last year's Pagami Creek Fire near Ely, which burned slowly at first but after unexpectedly hot and windy weather it grew to consume 93,000 acres and cost $23 million to fight.
Superior National Forest supervisor Brenda Halter said the directive came down last month as the national forest system's firefighting operation was stressed with huge fires in Colorado and other western states. "It's a national directive that means we're going to be much more aggressively suppressing wildfires in wilderness," Halter said.
The Pagami Creek blaze started last Aug. 18 with a lightning strike. Most lightning-started fires in the 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness smolder and die without spreading widely, and even for those that grow Forest Service policy had been to allow them to burn to help renew the forest — a cycle that has shaped forests for millennia.
But the blaze exploded Sept. 12, quickly spreading across 70,000 acres as crews and campers scrambled from its path. It took another month, nearly 1,000 firefighters from across the country and autumn rains and snow before the fire was declared to be out.
The Forest Service's old policy stoked anger among some local residents and leaders, who called for rethinking it.
"That's very good news," Tom Pearson, co-owner of the Stony River Sport Shop and Cafe in Isabella, said of the policy change. His business was threatened for a time by the Pagami Creek fire. "That should be their policy all the time. Nip it in the bud."
Halter said the temporary directive would be reviewed regularly and likely set aside during winter. She said there's no change in the long-term federal policy of using wildfires as a forest management tool. Allowing small fires to burn removes fuel for larger fires down the road, she said, and helps spur the growth of young trees that are more resistant to fire.
"Suppressing every fire is not a good solution," Halter said. "We've seen clearly that 100 years of trying to put every fire out only led to conditions that created catastrophic fires today."