Wednesday, February 8th, 2023
Wednesday, February 8th, 2023

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Who started the Ham Lake Fire?

A year has passedŠ

It’s been more than a year now since the fires went on the
Gunflint Trail. Burning more than 75,000 acres in the U.S. and
Canada, the 2007 Ham lake Fire was among the largest wildfires in
Minnesota history. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the fire
was of human origin. But the federal government hasn’t told the
public who started it.

Superior National Forest Supervisor Jim Sanders says fire
investigators from the U.S. Forest Service and the Minnesota DNR
completed the Ham Lake Fire investigation and turned over their
findings to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which will make any
forthcoming announcements about the case. He said it is not unusual
for a case to make slow progress through the federal court system,
partly due to the workload at the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Another significant legal case from 2007 also hasn’t progressed
to federal court. Last summer, six men were arrested following a
drinking and shooting spree where they threatened campers on
Basswood Lake. Sanders says the court system is now dealing with
significant crimes under state and county jurisdictions. Federal
court actions will follow. Then it is possible more court action
will occur in Canada, where part of the incident occurred. However,
the difference between this incident and the Ham Lake Fire is that
the names of the perpetrators were not withheld from the
public.

On the Superior National Forest, post-fire management activities
are proceeding. In May, the Gunflint Trail community sponsored a
tree planting effort where over 500 volunteers planted white and
red pine seedlings at public areas and along roadsides where
vegetation was lost to fire. In other areas, the Forest Service
worked with the DNR to do aerial seeding. Sanders said other
aspects of fire recovery include rehabilitation of campsites and
other public-use areas, watching for and preventing the spread of
invasive species, and protecting water quality, primarily from
fire-related erosion.

The Ham Lake Fire, which destroyed dozens of structures along
the Gunflint Trail, also burned areas in the Boundary Waters Canoe
Area Wilderness, as did the Cavity Lake Fire and other blazes in
2006. Within the wilderness, no reforestation occurs. The legal
definition of a federal wilderness area precludes most human
management activity.

Nevertheless, the forest will grow back, as it has throughout
the millennia that wild fire has been an element of the northern
landscape. Sanders points out that many tree species come back
quickly. By last fall, aspen sprouting in the wake of the May fire
already were three to four feet tall. Jack pine, which needs heat
to release the seeds from its cones, sprouts soon after a fire,
too. The new forest will be dominated by these and other tree
species that grow after a disturbance allows sunlight to reach the
forest floor.

Firefighting and coping with the aftermath of fires has affected
other national forest activities. The focus of recreational
management shifted to visitor safety and site rehabilitation. Less
affected was the timber program, which met its funded objectives.
Congress provided national forest in the lake states additional
funding to boost harvest activity, which had slumped in recent
years.

Sanders says the Superior National Forest currently has 260
permanent employees, up from about 190 when he came to the forest
in 1996. Currently, the size of the workforce is shrinking, due to
downturns in the national economy and federal budget. In the
Superior National Forest, position transfers are not being filled
and there are fewer seasonal employees.

Above-average rainfalls last fall and this year have brought an
end to the prolonged drought conditions that led to the spate of
wildfires in 2006 and 2007. But other issues loom large. Sanders
says the biggest change presently faced on the Superior National
Forest is nonferrous mineral exploration and possibly mining. New
technology and growing demand for metals such as copper have
renewed interest in northern Minnesota mining. Several companies
are doing active mineral exploration. Only one company, Poly Met,
has proposed a new mine, but Sanders predicts other precious metals
mines will be proposed within the next five years.

What else may happen in the Superior National Forest during that
timeframe? If the recent past is any indication, we can expect, if
not predict, more natural events. Since 1999, when hundreds of
thousands of forested acres were flattened by the July 4 windstorm,
the Superior National Forest has been faced with storm clean up and
timber salvage, preparations for subsequent wildfires, and several
major fires. Most recently, the Forest Service led an incident
management team in the aftermath of flash flooding along the North
Shore.

Remarkably, minimal injuries and no loss of life have been
associated with any of these events. Sanders says this is in part
testament to emergency preparations, including the national
Firewise program, and excellent cooperation among multiple public
agencies, the local community, and the private sector. In recent
years, portions of the Gunflint Trail were successfully evacuated
due the threat of an approaching wildfire. Firefighters and other
emergency responders collectively have spent weeks battling fires
and mopping up afterward. By and large, the handling of these
significant incidents has gone off without a hitch. Sanders says
this has made the Superior National Forest a national model for
emergency preparedness and response.

This is justifiably a point of pride for Sanders and all others
involved in emergency response. The federal government’s delay in
announcing who started the Ham Lake Fire is by no means a
reflection of their efforts. But in order for the people who were
affected by the Ham Lake Fire to find closure and put the event
behind them, the government must announce who did it.

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