Walking on the fire line
Journalist has rare opportunity to view BWCA fire aftermath
Editor’s note: Ely Timberjay Editor Keith Vandervort flew with the Superior National Forest Service to the scene of the Knife Lake fire. Here is his account.
What started out as a request to do a fly-over of the Knife Lake fire ended up being a boots-on-the-ground adventure into the world of those men and women of the Superior National Forest Service who risk their lives to help protect our little slice of heaven here in Northeast Minnesota.
I arrived at the Forest Service seaplane base in Ely early Saturday morning.
I was to meet Public Information Officer Becca Manlove to take a flight to the scene of the Knife Lake fire and observe the efforts of the fire fighters in controlling the blaze that burned almost 200 acres of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Before boarding one of three de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver floatplanes at the Shagawa Lake base, I was to be briefed on several points of safety.
The first flight is almost ready to leave. Pilot Scott Miller is briefing Incident Commander Tom Roach. “In the event we ditch, exit the plane and pull this yellow tab to inflate your personal flotation device you are wearing,” Miller says. “There is also a manual inflation device on the other side.”
Both pilot and passenger have made many flights in the BWCA and are well aware of the potential dangers and are familiar with the equipment they rely on.. Still, a safety briefing is mandatory for each flight.
“We’ll meet you out there,” Roach says to me. “I’ll be able to show you some of the destruction from the fire and you will meet some of the crew still on scene.”
They board the white and orange, six-passenger Beaver and taxi away from the dock for take-off.
A few minutes later, Manlove arrives, loaded down with helmets, gloves and other equipment. “Let me help you with that,” I say as we make our way to the tarmac.
“Here is your fire suit and helmet and gloves. We’re required to wear these while we are on scene,”she said.
She then proceeded to show me how to deploy my personal fire shelter. The package is about the size of a half loaf of bread and designed for one-time use as a last resort to protect a fire fighter in the event no escape is possible. She uses a practice shelter to demonstrate how it works. “Take it out of the case and while grasping these two tabs unfold it out by throwing it out in front of you. Step into foot end, put the other end over your head like a hood, grasp these loops and get down on the ground on your stomach, making sure you are fully covered by the shelter on the sides,” she said.
The bright green, tent-like material of the shelter is made of a fireproof material designed to protect the occupant from being burned by flames. I think about the prospect of actually having to use one in an emergency situation. I hope I never have to.
Next, I awkwardly squirm into the bright yellow fireproof suit, looking around to see if anybody is watching me. It is a little snug in the middle. I think I look like a giant banana. I shoulder my camera bag and we walk to the dock where our ride is waiting.
Pilot Tim Bercher gives us the same briefing on the personal flotation device usage I overheard for the first flight. We board the plane and begin our taxi to the middle of the lake. Bercher says the aircraft we are using, call sign “Beaver 2,” was bought brand new from the manufacturer by the Forest Service back in 1957. “Another of our planes was also bought brand new from the factory,” he said. “We may be the only base in the country with two Beavers in continuous service from when they were new.”
He slowly taxies the plane out to the take-off area, turns into the wind and hits the throttle. We slowly gain speed. The lake surface is relatively calm this morning. The Beaver is designed to take-off and land in a short distance. To me it seems the floats will never leave the water.
We pass over Ely, climb to about 2,000 feet and head northeast to Knife Lake at a speed of about 100 miles per hour. It seems that there are hundreds of lakes passing below on the 30-minute trip. Bercher names the lakes as we proceed. They all look alike to me.
We approach the fire site. Within the endless rich, green foliage of the forest below, I see a dark brown stain on the earth, the distinctive mark of a fire. We circle around the scene. Bercher is on the radio coordinating with the Incident Commander trainee Nick Petrack about the best place to land to get access to the shore. The other Beaver is moored on a point on the east end of the burned out area.
We descend quickly and land in a small channel that seems awfully narrow to me. I remember that Bercher said he has over 4,500 hours flying these planes. I sit back and enjoy my first-ever landing in a floatplane.
A few fire fighters meet us at a rock outcrop and help us secure the plane so we can get on land. After greeting the crew, which included Roach, Petrack and Heath Severson, we talk about their efforts in controlling the spread of the fire.
The most important thing is this is a team effort,” Petrack says. “We were here on the ground but we have a whole bunch of people we rely on to make this work.”
We hike about 50 yards through the woods to an established BWCA portage from the connecting portions of the South Arm of Knife Lake.
The Knife Lake fire was fully contained Friday evening. There was no lingering smoke nor even the smell of forest fire. What lay before me was hellish destruction, completely burned forest floor and blackened downed trees stacked like a pile of giant toothpicks. Most of the trees were still standing but many were just burned fence posts as much as 100-feet high.
We made our way along the portage path and hiked about 30 rods to the end. On my right was the burned forest and on my left, about six feet across, was the untouched forest. I was walking on the fire line where the firefighters established a stopping point to keep the fire from spreading. Days earlier, at this point, they were literally looking the fire in the face from just a few feet away.
Petrack explained that water pumps and about 300 feet of hose brought lake water up the portage path for the battle. “The natural terrain here and this portage with easy water access made this an ideal control line location to try to stop the spread of the fire,” he said.
We make our way along the portage. Mosquitoes are swarming all over me. They must like yellow. The warm, humid conditions, and the fact that the fire suit doesn’t breath much resulted in profuse sweating. I have canoe tripped into the BWCA since I was a teenager. My last trip was in 2008. I realized right then I need to get in better shape if I ever expect to do another trip in my fifth decade.
When we reach the end of the portage, I’m told the fire originated across the lake on the other side of the ridge. The steep terrain along the shore made it impossible to control the fire at that location.
We make our back up the portage, the burned trees and undergrowth on my left, contrasting with the untouched forest on my right.
Before we take off, we wait for firefighters from the other side of the bay to ferry over equipment in a canoe for us to take back to base. As it turned out, the pilot from the other Beaver, Scott Miller, was in the bow. In the stern was firefighter Chris Kinney who mentioned, as they approached, that he never canoed with a pilot before. Many comments were made about Miller’s paddling style. He said he will stick to flying airplanes.
Our take-off took us past the fire line I had just walked. The contrast between the burned and unburned forest was even more distinct from the air.
As we approached Ely, we fly past the origination point of last year’s Highway 1 fire.
We circle around the city and around the lake and made our landing past numerous boats with friendly waves coming from the fishermen.
There is no graceful way to enter or exit a Beaver floatplane. I manage to egress without tripping or falling down.
I have flown in a hot air balloon, Coast Guard helicopter, sailplane, aerobatic biplane, numerous homebuilt aircraft and Cessnas, even a J-3 Cub, and I thoroughly enjoyed each experience. This flight in a Forest Service floatplane, along with the firsthand look at forest fire control efforts, is an adventure I won’t soon forget.
As I thanked Manlove for the opportunity to fly with the Forest Service, I put in my request to get aboard a CL- 215 air tanker in the event of a future fire suppression effort out of Ely. It doesn’t hurt to ask.