University research associate caught up in Ham Lake wildfires

Although the fires have been contained, more than 75,000 acres were consumed by the flames.

Mitch Anderson

Lee Frelich usually studies forest fires after years, decades and sometimes even centuries have passed. But earlier this month, he got a more intimate view of his life’s work when he found himself in the path of the Ham Lake fire.

Frelich, the director of the University Center for Hardwood Ecology and the leading expert on Boundary Waters forest history, is a detective of sorts who pieces together clues, such as tree rings and other evidence, to reconstruct forest fires that occurred long ago.

The Ham Lake fire started on the Gunflint Trail along the Boundary Waters, near the town of Grand Marais, Minn., on May 5. The fire grew from there, spreading across the U.S. border.

“I’ve been studying forest fires my whole life, but you can hardly ever arrange to be at a place before a forest fire starts,” Frelich said. “It was really a once-in-a-lifetime experience for sure.”

Frelich ventured into the wild on May 4, along with two journalists on assignment for a “Backpacker Magazine” article. The three canoed into Seagull Lake the day before the fire started near Ham Lake, a few miles away.

The group saw a puff of smoke on the horizon that turned into a huge plume in a matter of hours, Frelich said.

“We didn’t know how far away we were from the flames,” he said. “It turned out we were within a mile of them.”

The wind and waves were too strong to canoe to safety in the near-freezing water, so the group decided to stick it out on the north side of the lake – just out of harm’s way. The near 40-mile-per-hour winds continued over that night and next day, causing the fire to rage even more.

By that night, fire had spread to the east side of Seagull Lake, illuminating the sky with its flames.

“At night we could see huge flames leaping into the sky,” Frelich said. “It was actually bright enough that you could hike around in the woods without a flashlight at midnight even two miles away from the fire.”

The group stayed in their campsite for two days as the fire crept ever closer.

“I was more worried about smoke inhalation,” he said. “Because of the waves, there was no way we could get away from the smoke.”

Finally the wind switched direction and the group was able to paddle out of harm’s way. The three met firefighters waiting for them when they got out of the wilderness, and their cars were surprisingly unharmed, except for a dusting of ash.

When firefighters reached 100 percent fire containment on the U.S. side Sunday, the fire had already damaged 140 buildings and burned more than 75,000 acres of land across both Canada and the United States, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The estimated cost of fighting the fire was put at more than $8 million for the United States.

Officials believed the fire was human-caused, because it started near habitation and also there was no lightning in the vicinity in days leading up to the fire.

Even before a 1999 windstorm downed millions of trees and increased fire danger, the Gunflint Trail area was one of the most fire-prone areas of the state, according to University geography professor Kurt Kipfmueller.

Through last July, the area experienced a drought that has continued until now, Kipfmueller said. The area was 14 inches below normal precipitation for the year, he said, getting only half of what it normally receives.

Frelich wasn’t the only University professor affected by the fire. University English professor Charles Sugnet spent last week trying to save the cabin he built by hand over the course of the 1980s with the aid of a former student.

Sugnet spent the majority of last week cutting down trees and wetting down anything that embers from the fire could set ablaze.

“I don’t think I have another cabin in me if this one burns,” Sugnet said.

Luckily, he didn’t have to build another, as firefighters contained the blaze before it could damage the building.

Susy Ziegler, another University professor who specializes in the effects of climate and fire on vegetation, said that contrary to popular belief, forest fires aren’t always a bad thing.

“Fires are a natural part of the ecosystem up there,” Ziegler said. “Some of the species that grow in the Boundary Waters require fire to regenerate.”

Ziegler added that some pine trees don’t release their seeds until after a fire has swept through and fire often clears space for new plant species to flourish, thus encouraging diversity among species.

As for the outlook for the area affected by the fire, Frelich remains optimistic.

“The forest will regenerate, it will take care of itself,” he said. “By summer, the ground will be green with liverwort and mosses and jack pine seedling. In five years, the forest will be head-high. In 20 years, most people won’t be able to tell there was ever a fire there.”