Sunday, August 21, 2005

Alpine Lake Fire Cools Down but Memories Still Simmer

Now that the Alpine Lake fire is under-control and the firecrews are mopping-up it is time to reflect on the fire and to revisit the feeling of the residents of the area.

Residents of Seagull and Sag Lakes are still asking, "did the Forest Service fiddles while seagull burnt?" Case in point- why did the Forest Service wait so long to get on the Alpine Lake Fire and why on Sunday night (August 7) when the fire was still manageable did the Forest Service discontinue their all-out attack on the fire. Everyone including the Forest Serves were aware that on that afternoon the weather forecast was for strong winds and hot dry weather. Predictably on Monday afternoon when the wind came up the fire, of course, "blew-up" and almost forced an evacuation of the upper Gunflint Trail.

Shortly after the fire began Sag Lake Resident, Bill Douglas stated; The Forest Service has changed their fire fighting philosophy since our last major fires, much to the risk of local property owners on Seagull and Sag." Douglas when on to state that, "The Alpine fire started Saturday, August 6. The first crew wasn't supposed to go in to fight the fire until Monday morning. In our earlier fires, they had people on the fire within hours." And Further, "The Forest Service knew about this lightning strike for two weeks. Why didn't they take a day and send two people in there to put it out? It would have saved us all the concern we have and probably a couple million dollars in cost fighting the fire by the time it is out. Forest personnel were heard to say that they really didn't want to send anyone in because it was 1/4 to 1/2 mile through heavy forest to get to the fire. In our earlier fires, they didn't hesitate to crash through equally dense forest for half a mile to get to the fire. Fire crews were observed heading up the trail at 11:30 am Tuesday morning. In our earlier fires, there were two fire fighting shifts. The first crews went in at 8:00 am, and were replaced by a crew fighting through the night at around 6:00 p.m. giving the fire 24 hour coverage. It was the evening crews that made the most headway due to low winds and higher humidity." finally Douglas stated that, "The Alpine fire puts the entire end of the Gunflint Trail at risk and I believe the Forest Service is not doing nearly enough to get it under control. They are literally playing with fire in our backyards by prescribing to a 'let-It-Burn' policy."

Could this failure of the Forest Service to mount an all-out assault on the fire immediately when the fire was first reported and to continue this assault until the fire was contained have anything to do with the Forest Service's stated policy for this fire of, "Minimum Impact Suppression Tools (MIST) using light-on-the-land fire fighting methods?"

Following the fire blowup on Monday the Forest Service decided to do a "back burn" from the fire-line to the Seagull Lake's northwest shoreline that included the Seagull palisades.
Fred Rouse another area resident in an email states that it, "Looks like the Forest Circus wants to play with fire. In the past great expense and effort were put into saving the Palisades and shoreline. Why or who has okayed this change. If the fire would run on them at the top of the Palisades they could lost the whole east-end of Sea Gull. With the height of the Palisades the wind could blow the sparks for miles."

Other disagree and seem to think the Forest Services is doing the right thing even though it means burning much of the Shoreline of Seagull Lake. Sue Prom of Voyageur Outfitters, who business was within a few miles of the path of the fire, writes in her Boundary Waters Blog, "I think the people in charge know what is best in this situation and if they need to burn a little bit of shoreline in order to protect the 70-80 cabins and businesses in the area, then so be it. I would rather be safe than sorry."

Most lake resident appear not to agree with Prom. Prior to the Forest Service's proposed back-burn, fourteen lake residents organized a flotilla of boats to go to the palisade in protest of the proposed back-burns. However the flotilla was turned back by the Cook Country Sheriffs Department before reaching the palisades. The Forest Service then met with the protesters and agreed to spare the palisades from their back-burn.

While the flames from the back-burn did not reached the Palisades much of the shoreline including several islands in the northwest end of the lake were destroyed. According to Debbie Marks, Seagull Lake Canoe Outfitter, "the two good things that came out of our protest was the Palisade was not burnt, at least up to now, and they are now holding daily briefing with area residents, something the Forest Service has never none done before up here."

To understand why lake residents were so upset you have to understand the Forest Services. controlled burn program for Seagull Lake. In 2002 Three Mile Island and a substantiall portion of the lake's shoreline was intentional burned by the Forest Service. Then in 2003 the Forest Service burnt another 4,000-acre including some of the Lake's southern shoreline around the Meditation Lake Portage. Resident are now being told that more prescribed burns are planned which will consume more shoreline of Seagull Lake.

Opponents say the fires are not only aesthetically unpleasing, but the lack of trees along the shoreline can spur erosion, and that the fires rob good seed trees for forest recovery.
"I understand why they want to do it, but they didn't have to do it," said Tony Faras, a Seagull Lake property owner. "There are a lot of problems with the way they're burning right down to the shore -- especially when they had the opportunity to put this fire out and didn't do it."
Seagull Resident Jim Raml, a self taught ecologist and former Forest Service employee with firefight experience, agrees with Faras and further stated that, "even thought the Forest Service have told us they were going to preserve the lake shoreline, they went ahead and burnt it anyways."

One also must understand that many lake residents still have not forgotten what the Forest Service's BWCA Legislation had previously done to Seagull Lake. The 1964 Wilderness Act resulted in the Forest Service taking many Seagull resident's cabins and resorts to make way for the BWCA. If this was enough the lake was further restricted by the 1978 BWCA Act which closed most of Seagull to outboard motors and snowmobile used by the lake residents. This also resulted in the removal of the last remaining resort on the lake- Seagull Lodge.

With the burning of a sizable portion of Seagull Lakes shoreline and more shoreline burning planned, and with memories of what the Forest Services' BWCA actions have done to their lake it is little wonder that most area lake residents are upset and quick to protest. The fire may have cooled but many tempers remain smoldering around Seagull and Sag.

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