Officials find no Pagami fire faultThe U.S. Forest Service on Monday issued its long-awaited internal review of how the agency handled last fall’s massive Pagami Creek fire, finding little fault in the decisions of forest officials and instead laying blame on “unprecedented’’ weather conditions and fire behavior.
By: Forum Newspapers, Lake County News Chronicle
The U.S. Forest Service on Monday issued its long-awaited internal review of how the agency handled last fall’s massive Pagami Creek fire, finding little fault in the decisions of forest officials and instead laying blame on “unprecedented’’ weather conditions and fire behavior.
The fire started with a lighting strike and was discovered Aug. 18 about 13 miles east of Ely. It was allowed to smolder and remained small until late August, when it began to grow under unusually dry, hot and windy conditions.
The reports indicate that neither experienced firefighting officials nor computer models could have predicted how fast and far the fire would move based on past fire behavior and that, while there were some close calls, the decisions made were correct.
Fire officials, for example, expected the fire to move about four miles on Sept. 12. Instead, it raced across more than 16 miles of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, burning 70,000 acres in one day and threatening Forest Service wilderness rangers and campers still inside the BWCAW. Several homes, cabins and a lodge also were evacuated on the southern border in Lake County.
The fire eventually burned across all or parts of 93,000 acres, burning well into October, smoldering into winter and costing more than $23 million to battle – the state’s largest wildfire in more than 75 years.
But no one was seriously hurt, no private property was destroyed and Forest Service officials say the efforts made throughout the fire followed policy and regulations.
“All actions and decisions associated with management of the Pagami Creek Wildfire were consistent with laws, regulations, and policy,’’ Forest Service officials said in summarizing the findings.
“Unexpected and unprecedented fire behavior was the key factor in the rapid, large growth of the fire on September 12. The fire moved in ways that were not only unexpected, but totally unprecedented for generations of firefighters and land managers in the area. Fire intensity stretched the operation and created problems where the system was functional – even successful – under normal conditions.
“As a result of employee actions, the public was safely evacuated,” the summary continued. Even when wilderness rangers became trapped by the fire and deployed their emergency fire shelters, “due to their training and effective fire shelter deployment, employees suffered no serious physical injury when they were entrapped.”
The report comes after the agency was criticized by residents and politicians who said the fire should have been doused immediately when it was small. Forest Service policy generally has been to let lightning fires in the BWCAW burn unless they threaten to leave the wilderness. By the time the Forest Service decided to try to stop it, the fire was growing to uncontrollable levels.
The review released Monday covers three separate reports from the local, regional and national levels. The internal reviews are similar to those performed earlier on a capsized canoe during the fire and on the use of emergency fire shelters. They are intended more as a learning tool for firefighters and fire officials than as any kind of criticism or assessment of blame.
“Even when decisions are consistent with policy and regulation, we can continue to learn and to improve our processes, particularly in extreme or unusual events,’’ said Brenda Halter, new Superior National Forest Supervisor, in a statement.
Findings in one report by Jim Thomas, regional fire and emergency operations specialist for the Forest Service’s eastern region based in Milwaukee, include:
From the beginning, all information indicated this fire to be a good candidate for monitoring within the wilderness, based on weather forecasts, normal monthly precipitation averages, time of year and the knowledge of all previous managed fires this season.
From Aug. 18 through Sept. 11, and from Sept. 13 (until the fire went out in October) the fire had acted like and resembled historical fires in the BWCAW.
In preparation for the predicted weather on Sept. 12, 2011, there was no specific information, previous fire behavior on this incident, weather forecast or fire weather warnings that were missed or overlooked by the team or forest leadership that would have predicted the unprecedented movement of the fire on Sept. 12.
The reports refer to unstable atmospheric conditions aloft – not just surface wind, humidity and temperature – as likely playing a large role in the rapid spread of the fire from Sept. 9 to Sept. 12. That instability caused a rapid rising of warm air during morning hours, which in turn triggered strong surface winds that helped push the fire out.
“Bottom line: Especially in fire management, there is always something new to learn to prepare for the ‘next one,’ “ noted Kris Reichenbach, spokeswoman for the Superior National Forest.
The Pagami Creek fire report was set to be released by Superior National Forest officials in January but was unexpectedly pulled back for further review by managers in the agency. It’s still not clear why the report was delayed. Fire officials involved in writing the reports were not available for comment Monday.
The Forest Service last month released a report assessing the deployment of emergency fire shelters by several Forest Service personnel, saying the agency should upgrade communications with field staff during fires but that the wilderness rangers made the right decisions to escape the fire.
For more information, go to www.fs.usda.gov/superior and click on “Pagami Creek Wildfire Reports and Information.”