Photo courtesy Dan Coughlin.
ISABELLA, Minn. -- The largest fire in at least a century in the Superior National Forest is still burning largely because of the way it started: A bolt of lightning.
Had the fire been human-caused, from a campfire, for instance, efforts would have been made by the U.S. Forest Service to put it out. However, Forest Service spokesperson Mary Shedd said, "If it's started by nature, the idea is nature can let it run."
That policy comes with a number of exceptions. If human lives or private property are threatened, the Forest Service intervenes. But neither seemed at risk when the Pagami Creek Fire was allowed to slowly burn for three weeks as the Forest Service followed historical models telling them how the fire would behave.
"We looked at decades worth of information on past and typical conditions," Shedd said.
But this time nature didn't follow the models.
"Nature stepped in and said 'I don't care if it's mid-September I'm going to give you temperatures in the 90s and high, high winds and extremely low humidifies,'" said Shedd. "That put together something that was very, very difficult to predict and very unlikely."
By Tuesday night, the small fire of the first three weeks had grown to a 100,000 acre inferno, covering one-tenth of the entire Boundary Waters Canoe Area.
Pat Thums' home is now a dot on a fire map, meaning she needs to be ready to leave should the fire move her direction.
As clerk of Stony River Township, she's had a good sampling of public opinion on Forest Service policy.
"There's quite a few people at the meetings who thought they should have taken better measure on getting it out faster," Thums said.
For cities like Ely that depend on tourism, much is at stake financially. Marcy Gotchnik, owner of Wilderness Outfitters, is most concerned about next year.
"I think people will be afraid that the beauty of the area is not going to be there without the trees," Gotchnik added.
Yet fires, the Forest Service insists, can be beneficial, reducing fuels that could cause even larger fires and continuing a centuries-long process of forest renewal.
Still, for all the research and historic data, sometimes things go wrong. And for now there is no end in sight, to either the fire or the second guessing.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)