Fight against Minn. wildfire progresses but could leave impacts on state forestry industry, officials say

Recent rains helped but drought conditions persist

Photo: U.S. Forest Service

MADISON, Wis. -- Recent rain and low temperatures have brought some relief to the ongoing battle against wildfires in northern Minnesota, but they have not been enough to reach the deep layers of organic peat soil continuing to burn in the Greenwood fire. The fire is currently 49% contained and could impact the state’s forestry industry, officials said.

The Greenwood fire has been burning through the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota since it was sparked by a lightning strike on Aug. 15. It has grown to nearly 26,000 acres, or over 40 square miles. Nearly 500 people have been working to contain the spread, including local loggers contracted by the U.S. Forest Services to create fire breaks and remove additional fuel load.

Recent rains brought some welcome news for those battling the fire, and also residents in the nearby area. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and other areas of the forest have been closed with orders for people to evacuate the vicinity.

It is unclear how large the Greenwood fire will grow before it is contained, but there will likely be effects on the local forest industry even after the flames are extinguished and operations are able to resume.

Kristen Bergstrand, the Timber Utilization and Marketing Consultant with the DNR Forestry Division, explained that while some private property is at risk, the wildfire is primarily affecting public lands and has currently burned less than 1% of Minnesota’s total 15.7 million acres of timberland.

“The impact to industry should be fairly minimal, but it depends on a lot of factors like the total acres burned, how many public or private timber permits are affected and what volume of timber has been sold and not harvested or destroyed in the fire,” Bergstand said.

It will, however, have a larger impact on local operations that routinely source wood from the Superior National Forest.

Mike Forseman, Executive Director of Associated Contract Loggers & Truckers of Minnesota, is also concerned that local loggers may be negatively affected. The current land closures and halting of contracted sales due to the wildfire are immediate worries, but upcoming restrictions may have more lasting effects. Starting August 30, harvesting trees and processing logs as well as other land management activities will be restricted between 11:00am-11:00pm on DNR-managed lands of Cook, Lake, Koochiching, and northern St. Louis counties. The restrictions are expected to last until the overall conditions improve.

“It could be a couple of weeks, depending on the weather, but if the restrictions continue, I hope there would be some sort of financial aid for the loggers, because they will need help depending on how long things are shut down,” Forseman said.

(Photo: U.S. Forest Service, Southwest Side of Greenwood Fire)
(Photo: U.S. Forest Service, Retardant drop on Greenwood Fire, Aug. 21)

Some of the wood in the burned areas could be salvaged for sawlogs, but it is not an easy process because the burnt bark and soot on the outside of the logs can’t go through the machines.

Forseman also described the value of enticing a stable biomass market to encourage the clean-up of fallen and dead trees, which could reduce fuel and prevent large wildfires in the future.

“Spruce budworm has decimated a lot of the area, and after a certain point it is too damaged to be marketable. We don’t have a big biomass market in the area to take that wood, and without it, it’s not economically feasible to clean it up.”

Minnesota’s lack of precipitation contributed to the favorable fire conditions in the first place. The entire state entered a drought warning in mid-July, but conditions in northern Minnesota have worsened over the past month. The region affected by the fire is currently classified as experiencing an extreme drought.

“While drought is one component of conditions that contributes to the current wildfire danger, the weather is the largest contributing factor,” said Leanne Langeberg, Public Information Officer for the DNR based at the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center. “This spring and summer we have experienced many days of sunshine, low relative humidity and windy conditions, and minimal precipitation events that continued the drying pattern in vegetation.”

The spruce budworm infestation in northern Minnesota may also be partially to blame for the fire conditions. These native insects tend to have a major outbreak every 30-40 years. They cause defoliation and eventual death of balsam fir and spruce trees after years of consecutive feeding. The area currently burning has had spruce budworm for the past 7-8 years, which has resulted in stands of dry, dead trees providing ample fuel for a growing fire. The observations of the Greenwood Fire align with the results of a study showing the increased risk of wildfire 8-10 years after a spruce budworm outbreak.

Wildfires are not uncommon in Minnesota, but according to Langeberg, the state usually transitions out of the spring fire season by mid-June. Since the beginning of the year, over 1900 human- and lightning-caused fires have been reported and burned more than 61,000 acres in Minnesota.

“While this year is an exceptional year for wildfire activity in Minnesota, we have experienced larger wildfires in Minnesota in the past,” Langeberg said. One of the most recent, large-scale wildfires was the Pagami Creek fire in 2011. Also ignited by a lightning strike in mid-August, the wildfire burned an estimated 93,000 acres. In comparison the Greenwood fire’s current area is just over a quarter of the size.

The DNR’s Silviculture Program Consultants Paul Dubuque and Mike Reinikainen say the burned land can eventually be restored to forested conditions, but the recovery rate depends on a number of factors, including the fire’s severity, the landscape, the climate, and characteristics of the tree species in the area. Portions of the burned area will recover naturally, but other areas will likely require support. Once the fire is contained, the DNR and other public land agencies will conduct aerial and ground fire damage assessments to determine which burned areas are in most need of assistance, but a full recovery to pre-disturbance conditions may take several decades.

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