BY CARY J. GRIFFITH
Author of Gunflint Burning
Eleven years ago this month, the most destructive wildfire in modern Minnesota history at the time rallied more than one thousand firefighters, consumed 75,000 acres of forest, with firefighting costs around $11 million and structure losses estimated to top $100 million. Writing about the Ham Lake fire was no easy task, and here are some of the highlights that made the process most compelling.
1. Forests. Like many Minnesotans, I love forests. I was raised on the edge of woods, and have spent much of my life climbing, circling, and weaving through trees. Once on the Superior Hiking Trail, my father-in-law, Don, who was raised on the wide open plains of western Montana, said, “too many trees.” A lovely man, but I could not disagree more. For me, hiking a woodland path is a transformative experience. Forests have been so important to me, and I wanted to know more about the impact of fire on what I consider sacred country. Much of that impact is bad, but surprisingly, much of it is also good.
2. Northeastern Minnesota. One of the things I love about northeastern Minnesota is wilderness. During Memorial Day weekend 2007, just days after the Ham Lake fire was extinguished, my wife and I drove 45 miles up the Gunflint Trail to hike the Magnetic Rock Trail. Parts of the area were still smoldering and a red fox trotted along a ditch with a recently dispatched woodchuck in its mouth. We hiked through burned-over country with green shoots already pushing up through the ash. At the time I did not think of writing about the fire, but the image of those fern fronds rising out of the blackened forest floor hung with me long after my return home.
3. Firefighting. While at the time the Ham Lake fire was the largest fire in Minnesota in nearly a century, it was not the largest fire in Minnesota history. Not by a long shot. The Ham Lake fire burned 75,000 acres. That sounds dramatic, but when placed in historical context the fire is number 12 on the list. The Hinckley fire of 1894 (No. 1; 350,000 acres) killed 418 people. The Baudette-Spooner fire of 1910 (No. 2; 300,000) killed 42 people. And the Cloquet-Moose Lake fire of 1918 (No. 4; 250,000) killed 452 people. So why cover a forest fire that ranks number 12 on the all-time Minnesota forest fire list?
Over the past century we have grown increasingly sophisticated in how we fight forest and structure fires. Currently, when fires break out, there are lots of resources from a variety of government and non-government organizations that are brought to bear on the flames. In part the comprehensive, complex approach to managing forests and fighting fires accounts for why – at least in Minnesota – we haven’t seen forest fires of the magnitude of the top 10 on the all-time Minnesota forest fire history list. In large part, Minnesota forest fire history is a key reason for how today’s firefighters attack a blaze.
4. Water. Fires in Northeastern Minnesota differ from wildfires in other parts of the country by having virtually unlimited access to one essential resource: water. During the Ham Lake fire a variety of aircraft were constantly scooping water from nearby lakes and keeping up a steady douse over the flames. Similarly, property owners employed sprinkler systems that tapped nearby water resources. In fact, all but one of the cabins running an operational sprinkler system survived the fire intact. Without access to the area’s incredible wealth of water resources, the damage wreaked from the flames would have been substantially worse.
5. Numbers. The Ham Lake fire burned 144 structures at an estimated cost of $100 million. The fire raged and was fought for 13 days. At one point there were more than 1,000 people on its front lines. The total firefighting costs were an estimated $11 million. The basic statistics of this fire begged the question: How do you organize, feed, equip, and deploy a force the size of a Roman legion who are battling one of nature’s most destructive events?
6. A match. All the other fires on the top 12 list were started by drought and/or lightning. There are one or two minor exceptions which were also manmade, but not in the same way as the Ham Lake fire, which was started by a match that kindled a campfire. At exactly the wrong time a camper walked away from the campfire, returning to his tent. It appears he believed the campfire had been sufficiently extinguished. By the time he returned, the flames were out of control. He struggled mightily to douse them, but the dry conditions, wind, abundant burnable fuel, and fire progress overpowered his efforts.
More than one year after the fire was extinguished the camper was charged with one felony and two misdemeanors. If he had been found guilty of the felony, under Minnesota law he would have been held responsible for paying damages caused by the fire. Perhaps more importantly, he had been visiting the BWCAW every spring at the same time for more than 25 years. It’s hard to imagine the depth of pain he felt about starting a fire that destroyed so much of a wilderness he loved.
7. People and community. Finally, last but definitely not least, if you are searching for examples of altruism, drive up the Gunflint Trail. This is a region of Minnesota and the country where people watch out for each other in ways we don’t always see. Fighting this fire involved professionals from the US Forest Service, Department of Natural Resources, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service, and other government organizations. But it also involved the assistance of seven Cook County volunteer fire departments. These volunteers were joined by many others contributing time, energy, equipment, and money to assist with the efforts required to fight fire, including (but not limited to) feeding and housing everyone who had anything to do with working in the area. These people made significant sacrifices in the pursuit of saving lives, limbs, and property.
The Ham Lake fire contains many of the elements of great drama: tragedy, heroism, triumph, rebirth. My hope is that Gunflint Burning at least in part conveys some of the blood, sweat and tears of the legions who came together to battle this blaze.
Cary J. Griffith is the author of five books: Gunflint Burning: Fire in the Boundary Waters; Lost in the Wild: Danger and Survival in the North Woods; Opening Goliath, winner of the 2010 Minnesota Book Award; Wolves, winner of a Midwest Book Award; and Savage Minnesota, which was published serially in the Star Tribune. He lives in Rosemount, Minnesota.
“Cary Griffith has penned the consummate story of one of the great wildfire disasters in the history of Minnesota. Expertly reported and cleverly written, this account of the Ham Lake fire of 2007 reads like a thriller and an environmental treatise all in one. This is no coincidence, given Griffith’s bona fides. Gunflint Burning is one of those rare books for just about anyone.”
—Peter Geye, author of Wintering
“Griffith’s precise research and his clearheaded storytelling serve admirably to underscore the skill, selfless dedication, and love of place and community that sustained foresters, firefighters, outfitters, pilots, food suppliers, and residents through a truly heroic struggle.”
—Cheri Register, author of The Big Marsh: The Story of a Lost Landscape