The U.S. Forest Service has on obligation to maintain effective wildland firefighting capability in northeastern Minnesota. The region is home to the 2.1 million-acre Superior National Forest, the largest national forest in the U.S., east of the Rockies.
It’s also one of the most fire-prone regions outside the West. Located on the southern edge of the boreal forest, it’s subject to an often-intense spring fire season and has increasingly experienced severe fire conditions in late summer and fall. With shallow soils, the region is prone to flash droughts that can quickly ramp up fire danger, as we experienced most recently with the Pagami Creek fire, which burned nearly 100,000 acres in September 2011. With climate change portending continued warming and increasingly erratic weather patterns, the prospect for catastrophic fire in this region is almost certain to increase in the years ahead.
That’s why the prospect that the Forest Service may discontinue the stationing of large air tankers at the Ely Airport is such a concern. At this point, we only know for certain that the Forest Service is undertaking a review of its aerial firefighting resources. Yet an internal Forest Service email obtained by the Timberjay suggests that a decision has already been made at the regional and national levels within the agency to discontinue stationing of large tankers at both Ely and Hibbing.
This would be a stunning decision, one that Kawishiwi District Ranger Gus Smith described as “horrible, if true.”
That’s because Smith recognizes the key strategic importance of the Ely Airport, which is located in the heart of the Superior National Forest and just outside the particularly fire-prone Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Without the ability to station large aircraft at either Hibbing or Ely, air tankers would need to come from Brainerd or Bemidji. These facilities are located too far away to provide for effective fire control.
The importance of the Ely Airport as a base of operations is well understood within the Forest Service. That’s one of the reasons that the airport has received millions of dollars in state and federal funding in recent years— specifically to upgrade the facility to meet the needs of large air tankers. For the Trump administration to now reverse course on the use of the Ely Airport would effectively flush that prior public investment and leave the region increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic fire.
It’s well known within the fire service that a quick response by large tankers can be incredibly effective in bringing wildland fires under control, with the ability to deploy large volumes of fire retardant with computer precision. They are deployed most often to protect the flanks of advancing fires, and in many cases, can even halt the advance of fires in their early stages. But such aircraft can only be effective when they are staged near enough to the action to ensure a prompt turn-around. When it comes to catastrophic fire, Ely’s airport is the operational base of choice for some of the most inaccessible and fire-prone territory east of the Rockies. Indeed, three of the largest wildland fires in the eastern U.S. in recent memory have occurred in the region in just the past dozen years, and the Ely Airport was key to the fight in every case.
For the millions of acres of forest in northern St. Louis, Lake, and Cook counties, the Ely Airport is mission critical and any decision to terminate the use of the facility by large tankers would be nothing short of reckless. Any sensible federal review would reach the same conclusion.