BWCAW fires are a classroom topic

The ongoing fire provides hot-topic lesson material for professors.

Yasin Mohamud

The wildfires ripping through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota have sparked the interest of University of Minnesota professors and students.

As firefighters continue to battle the month-old flames, the Pagami Creek Fire is a hot topic in classrooms in the Department of Forest Resources in the College of Food, Agricultural and National Resource Sciences

Lee Frelich, director of the Center for Forest Ecology and an expert on boreal forests, said he has seen a newfound interest from students in the forest fires in the courses he teaches.

In his landscape and forest ecology classes, current events can make lessons âÄúmore realâÄù to students.

âÄúIn the past, we were talking about historical fires and now thereâÄôs this big fire and people want to know whatâÄôs going to happen to it,âÄù Frelich said.

Fire officials reported Sunday that 45 percent of the fire has been contained. Nearly 880 firefighters have worked to calm the blaze.

The colossal wildfire started after lightning struck near Pagami Creek in the BWCAW on Aug. 18 has since swallowed up about 100,000 acres âÄî making it the largest Minnesota wildfire in 80 years.

Like many national forests, the BWCAW has a let-burn policy because fires are necessary to the forest ecology. Dry and windy conditions prodded the fire to grow unexpectedly from a one-acre area to 136-acre blaze.

But the uncontained fire was a threat to residents and campers in the area. Nearby buildings were evacuated and campers were rushed out of the park earlier this month.

When the fire was at its peak two weeks ago, Gov. Mark Dayton issued an executive order allowing the Minnesota National Guard to assist.

Frelich also said that giving updates on the fires as they relate to what he is teaching in his courses is a source of excitement among his students.

âÄúUsually if I have some new information about this fire, the students kind of perk up more than they usually do and there is more conversation among the students about it,âÄù he said.

The FR department also offers a fire ecology class in the spring which will be taught by Frelich.

âÄúBy the spring time, we should have before and after satellite images of the fires so itâÄôll definitely be something that I can work into that course as well,âÄù he said.

Eli Anoszko, a Ph.D student in natural resources science and management and a TA for the department has also been hit by the fire bug. He spent the summer comparing historical fires.

âÄúThe project I worked on over the summer basically dealt with me looking at regeneration and how the forest is changing after the disturbances âĦ looking at how those different combinations of disturbances affect the species of trees that are going to grow in those forested areas,âÄù he said.  

Anoszko said the BWCAW fires are good for ecology, but bad for people. Fire is essential for most of the tree species in the area to germinate and regenerate.

âÄúFires are extremely a hazard to those who live in close proximity to the wilderness because of dangers of the fires escaping,âÄù he said.

Anoszko reiterated FrelichâÄôs sentiment about the excitement and interest that the fires have created among students in their department.

âÄúIn the course that IâÄôm a TA for right now, IâÄôd say a lot of the students are interested in whatâÄôs happening with the fires,âÄù he said.

 âÄúFires are exciting and they make the national news and there are very few things in forest ecology that get as much media attention. And the fires are directly relatable to what we cover in class, so itâÄôs exciting,âÄù he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.