Ham Lake Luck

     I’m not sure what the bulldozer operator was thinking.  There were cords of wood on fire the entire length of the train tracks on the elevated railroad bed with dry forest on both sides.  The wood was flaming and the dozer just kept pushing it forward plowing some of the blazing cord wood forward but the majority of the burning timbers were being pushed off to each side of the railway igniting the grass and trees all around.  I couldn’t get his attention to make him stop.  Couldn’t he see what he was doing?  It was like shoveling a bunch of snow when most of it just went to the sides of the scoop but instead it was fire and he was making it spread faster and faster.

     Then I woke up.  It was just a bad dream.

     I was driving home from town and I spotted a small fire right near the Magnetic Rock Trail.  I tried to radio our department members but couldn’t get through to any of them.  Then I remembered, they were all in town at the Emergency Services Conference.

     Then I woke up again.  I fell back to sleep only to be alerted to the smell of heavy smoke in my room at the Pines.  This was real.  This time I stayed up.  Now I am writing this. 

     It’s been like living in a war zone; always on edge, always on guard.  I see a flickering piece of plastic out of the corner of my eye and I think it’s a flame.  I see a snow fence off in the woods and imagine it is the beginning of a blaze.  The mind plays tricks on you, even in your sleep.

     Yesterday was a “calm” day on the Gunflint Trail, compared to the day before.  The temperature was low, wind speed was minimal and crews were able to somewhat keep things under control.  Of course there were spot fires near structures, plumes of billowing smoke in most directions, but at least it wasn’t the raging wall of flame I have become accustomed to this past week.

     The acreage burned on the Ham Lake Fire is over 55,000 acres.  Half of the Gunflint Trail has been evacuated and the fire is only 5% contained.  Can you imagine being the person responsible for this fire?  The loss of property, the displacement of the evacuees, the disruption of all of these lives, the risk of the lives of the firefighters?   I feel for that person because the weight on their shoulders must be almost too heavy to carry.

     It could have happened to anyone.  Have you ever left a campfire burning unattended overnight?  I know I have.  Have you left a campsite for a quick paddle out to try to catch some fish with the fire pit still smoking?  I know I have.  Have you packed up all of your belongings without being positively sure your campfire was cool to the touch?  I know I have.

     The person responsible for this fire didn’t try to start it.  It just happened.  The conditions of the forest were primed for fire, and maybe that person did everything they were supposed to do.  Maybe the fire burned deep down into the duff, or an errant spark blew into some dry brush in the woods waiting to ignite when the conditions became volatile.  Whatever happened, it happened.

     We’re all great Monday Night Quarterbacks.  “There should have been a fire ban in place.”  Sure, I agree after a fire has consumed 55,000 acres, but if you would have asked me a week ago if I wanted a fire ban I doubt I would have agreed.

     The ice just went off of the lakes.  The late season snow had kept the Gunflint Trail in a condition better than the rest of the State of Minnesota .  The water is cold in May and the air temperatures are normally cold too.  Not many people visit the BWCAW in May and everyone who loves camping loves to have a campfire.

     We love our woods, we love where we live and we love to have campfires.  Our guests love to have campfires and it’s a big deal when there is a fire ban.  When I was young I used to roast my marshmallows over the electric stove in our kitchen and if I really wanted an adventure I would roast them over a candle on our sidewalk. It didn’t matter; I just wanted to roast a marshmallow.  Campers love to roast marshmallows too and they love the ambiance of a campfire.

     Should we restrict campfires in the BWCAW so it never burns?  That wouldn’t work; we’d have to prevent lightening strikes too.  Forests will burn and accidents will happen, it could have happened to anyone.  I agree forest fires should be prevented but what’s done is done.  Let’s not cast blame or try to figure out why.  Maybe we can prevent it from happening again, but then again maybe not.

     We live in the woods.  Forests need forest fire and we know this.  Just as we know if you live in California you may have an earthquake or live in Kansas you may experience a twister.

     We chose to build in the woods with the threat of a forest fire in the back of our minds.  I am so very sorry for the loss of everyone’s property and belongings.  I am saddened that our landscape is forever changed.  Yet I feel lucky.

     I am lucky to be alive and I am lucky to be surrounded by so many loving and caring people.  I am lucky there has been support available to help with the fire fighting efforts, take care of my kids and my business.  I am lucky to live in such a wonderful place.   

     It is still a wonderful place to live, the Gunflint Trail.  I saw a moose on our road, the loons swimming on Gunflint Lake , our friend the porcupine on the side of the road.  All of this since the fire.  The wildlife is still here, the peep frogs are peeping and the birds are singing.  The marsh marigolds are blooming in the ditches and the black earth will erupt with green.  There will be new plants, new trees and new scenery.

     I am lucky to get to sleep at all even if it is filled with nightmares that are very real.