Forest fires capture a lot of attention and concern. Loggers worry about lost resources. People who hike and camp in the forest worry they’ll see nothing but ugly, blackened vistas for years to come. But a big fire this summer in the northwoods gives people a chance to see just how fast the forest can recover. Even as the fire still burns, foresters see signs of life. The GLRC’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Forest fires capture a lot of attention and concern. Loggers worry about lost resources.
People who hike and camp in the forest worry they’ll see nothing but ugly, blackened vistas for years
to come. But a big fire this summer in the northwoods gives people a chance to see just
how fast the forest can recover. Even as the fire still burns, foresters see signs of life.
The GLRC’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
The Cavity Lake fire started in mid-July this summer. It turned out to be the fire people have been
worrying about for seven years. In 1999, huge straight-line winds knocked down millions
of trees. They toppled into an impassable tangle of drying fuel in and near the Boundary
Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota. Locals call it “the
The Cavity Lake fire gobbled up the blown-down trees. It roared across lakes,
threatening homes and resorts.
(Sound of boat motor)
Two forest service workers hop in a small boat to document the fire and its aftermath. In
places, the fire seems to have consumed everything, down to the soil, but these two are
looking for life.
Black, powdery ash covers the ground. Burned snags, limbless trees the color of
charcoal, stand against the sky. But even here, biologist Lissa Grover can find signs of
“If you look around, you can see the 20-foot tall trees that took off after the blowdown,
and a lot of them still have cones on the top, and those cones are open now, and the seeds
will fall from them into the bare soil and germinate.”
In fact, some seeds, such as Jack Pine, wait for fire to open:
“There’s a seed bank in the soil, just waiting for a disturbance like this. There’s one plant
called Bicknell’s geranium that sprouts after fire, produces flowers the second year, sets
seed. Those seeds will stay in the soil until the next fire, even if it’s 200 years from now.”
And some plants aren’t waiting for the next generation. Grasses are already pushing
green shoots through the blackened dirt.
(Sound of motor)
Our next stop is a big island. After the 1999 blowdown in northeastern Minnesota, the
Forest Service purposely burned some areas near homes and resorts. The idea was to
reduce the amount of fuel available for wildfires. Crews set this island on fire four years
Wilderness ranger Tim McKenzie says that intentional burn saved the island, and the
resorts, from the Cavity Lake fire:
“It was traveling pretty good distances and spotting on these islands. As soon as it hit
here it just lay down.”
The blowdown fuel was already burned, and the young trees were too small and green to
keep the fire going.
Animals here are also adapted to fires. Bears, wolves and moose can walk away from a
fire. Birds can fly away or take refuge in the water.
Grover does worry about the young eagles, still in their nests and unable to fly.
“The trees are still there, the nest is still there, the adult eagles are still here, but it’s
unlikely that the juveniles in the nest survived the fire.”
But a few minutes later, we hear a sound that gladdens Grover’s heart: a young eagle
screaming for food.
(Sound of eagle)
At least one young eagle survived the Cavity Lake fire.
This land has been swept repeatedly by fires. They start, grow, move, and burn out in a
patchwork pattern. A fire last year burned until it ran into an area that had burned thirty
years ago. And here, in a thirty-year-old burn, is a picture-perfect Boundary Waters
(Sound of walking)
Young balsams scent the air with their clean, northwoods smell. Young birches lean
across the path. The moss is soft underfoot. The air is moist, and the mosquitoes are
Tim McKenzie fought that fire, thirty years ago. He says whenever fire burns, it’s nature
“People are used to seeing a snapshot in time. But the landscape that they’re used to
seeing became that landscape because of this process.”
And canoe outfitters here are busy planning routes that will show that landscape changing.
For the GLRC, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.