GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. — Parts of the popular Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) will reopen Saturday as firefighters make progress toward controlling wildfires in northeastern Minnesota.
The Superior National Forest is lifting the full closure of the Boundary Waters and the Crooked Lake area near the fires in Canada. The closure had dealt a blow to tourists who spend months planning trips to Boundary Waters and to the outfitters and other businesses that serve them.
U.S. Forest Service (USFS) officials have also slightly modified closure maps for the Greenwood fire, and the John Ek and Whelp fires. The closure of U.S. Forest Service land at the Upper Gunflint Trail remains in place.
The Greenwood is listed as 37% contained on the USFS incident website. Officials say 65 different fires in the forest have burned about 45 square miles. Fire officials will update residents on the situation during a public meeting set for 6 p.m. Friday at the Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center in Finland.
In a post on Facebook Wednesday Superior National Forest supervisor Connie Cummins said officials will conduct a phased reopening of portions of the LaCroix, Kawishiwi and Tofte Ranger Districts starting Saturday. They will be reopened for both overnight and day use.
Because areas in the western BWCA remain in extreme drought and active fire conditions, they will stay closed. These areas include the end of the Gunflint Trail, and near the John Ek and Whelp fires.
"When we look at removing some of the closed areas into the future, we can't totally eliminate risk," Cummins said. "When you go into the Boundary Waters you always take some sort of risk, but what we do is we try to manage that degree of risk - and we do that looking across the spectrum."
Cummins said the BWCA is 8 to 16 inches of precipitation below where it was at this time last year. She said it would take several weeks of 1 to 2 inches of rain per week to get out of the current dry conditions.
The USFS works with fire experts to determine where to open the BWCA to visitors. They take drought conditions, fuel conditions, long-term weather predictions, time of year and availability of resources into consideration.
"The good news is though, in spite of the drought, we are moving into fall. Days are shorter, colder," Cummins said. "Days that we could find conditions that align where the temps are higher, humidity lower, winds pick up - fire could move under those conditions."
Cummins said officials are more concerned about the ongoing fire risk in areas where there is already an active fire on the ground and has the chance to get up and move.
Permits that have already been purchased in closed areas will be canceled and refunded through Sept. 10, while permits for reopened portions will be available to reserve beginning Thursday.
The USFS is working with the Department of Natural Resources to determine restrictions for overnight camping, but Cummins says campfires are still not allowed.
"We're really happy that we can start to open things up for all of you to at least get a chance to get in this year before the snow comes," Cummins said.
For more information about BWCA closures and permit availability, visit the USFS-Superior National Forest website.