I recently saw a video by the US Forest Service, detailing how six firefighters survived the Pagami Creek fire in the Boundary Waters (BW), their final, fortunately successful stand occurring on Lake Insula, a place my wife and I once knew as well as any person alive.


Lake Insula sunset, 2009


Where the four firefighters were talking, one year almost to the day after this picture was taken. Notice how  narrow the channel is.  September 2010, Insula.


Cold day on Insula, where four years later the four canoeists would paddle for their lives by this site.

The 2011 fire began by a lightning strike in Pagami Creek, a place where canoeists don’t travel.  After being quiescent for a few weeks, being allowed to burn naturally, the fire became more active, and suppression was begun.  The fire made a 12 mile run one day, catching everybody by surprise, including six firefighters, four of whom deployed their shelters on a small island and survived; the other two going into the water by their canoe, surviving first the fire and then hypothermia.  The lessons learned were: “canoeists in the face of a fire may encounter exceedingly strong winds and may swamp,” “shelters degrade when exposed to fire and water,” and “hypothermia is a potential problem for those escaping a fire by jumping into the water.”  Those are all good lessons, but there were far more to be learned.

When the fire became more active, Forest Service personnel in the field were told that the BW would have a “soft closure,” a term that one ranger said she had never heard, meaning, as near as she could tell, people would be asked to leave the woods.  Catchy phrases like “soft closure,” and “tweak the system” are ill-defined and potentially dangerous.  They must be strictly defined.  The woods should be either closed or open.  A campfire ban is clear but if people are told they ought to leave but aren’t required to, there is a mixed message. I have a simple solution: if there is a concern that people would be better off out of the woods, make them leave.

Two men went south, east and downwind of the fire, to check a hiking trail.  They were told the fire wouldn’t be in that area for a few days, but their senses told them that the lighting up of the nearby sky, even if they couldn’t see the fire, was a bad sign.  The wind had changed, and the fire had moved much closer than anybody thought.  Indeed, the two had to run back to their canoes to escape it.  Lesson: fire can move faster than predicted, and in the absence of knowing exactly where the fire is, one should use caution.  

The fact that the men had to go into Horseshoe Lake, unnamed in the video, but clearly the lake referred, in order to help campers close their camp and get back into safer Lake Three, should have been strong evidence to the supervisors that the fire was starting to become far more dangerous.  The campsite was burned; the campers barely escaped.

At one point, a telling comment was made when a firefighter called in and spoke to somebody who was not his supervisor.  The firefighter said that “they” (he and his partner) were uncomfortable with their current supervisor, so for their purposes, they were going to work with the person with whom they were speaking.  Wow.  That is a huge red flag for communication problems.

The next day, the firefighters were told to move further into the wilderness, towards Lake Insula, to move any campers there to the north end of the lake, away from the fire.  They were told they had a few days to do this, and the winds had shifted to the northwest, pushing the fire southeast, away from populated lakes.  I have traveled into Insula over a dozen times.  It is a long paddle with seven portages, and there are no options for safety once one leaves Lake Four heading east, until the middle of Insula.  I was puzzled why people weren’t flown in to do the warning and then picked up later that day.  Again, however, the fire was felt not to be a significant concern.  Lesson: Moving canoeists downwind of an active fire should be done only if there are significant escape routes.

Two women, camped at the last campsite on Hudson Lake, the last lake before Insula, took their  packs across the 105 rod  (525 meter) portage between the two lakes, spending time at the Insula end speaking to their two male counterparts.  All were concerned about the fire, and when some noise was heard, the women went back quickly to get their canoe, basically abandoning their campsite.  It takes thirty minutes to make two trips across the portage, and it was becoming clear to the four that they needed to get on the lake fast, because the first part of the paddle is channels and small islands, shallow water, and offers no protection against fire.  The four were now paddling for their lives, not to close campsites but to get as far east and north as possible.

Two other women moved off Campsite 7 (it was really 8) to escape the fire.  They realized the winds were too high to safely paddle and jumped into the water, using their fire shelter, something to my knowledge has never been done before.

Here are the “10 and 18” (italics are the issues that the firefighters had):

Standard Firefighting Orders

1.  Keep informed on fire weather conditions and forecasts.

2. Know what your fire is doing at all times.

3 . Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire.

4.  Identify escape routes and safety zones and make them known.

5. Post lookouts when there is possible danger.

6 . Be alert. Keep calm. Think clearly. Act decisively. (Done right).

7. Maintain prompt communications with your forces, your supervisor, and adjoining forces.

8.  Give clear instructions and insure they are understood.

9.  Maintain control of your forces at all times.

10. Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.

18 Watchout Situations

1.  Fire not scouted and sized up.

2. In country not seen in daylight.

3. Safety zones and escape routes not identified.

4.  Unfamiliar with weather and local factors influencing fire behavior.

5.  Uninformed on strategy, tactics, and hazards.

6.  Instructions and assignments not clear.

7.  No communication link with crewmembers/supervisors.

8. Constructing line without safe anchor point.

9. Building fireline downhill with fire below.

10. Attempting frontal assault on fire.

11.  Unburned fuel between you and the fire.

12.  Cannot see main fire, not in contact with anyone who can.

13. On a hillside where rolling material can ignite fuel below.

14. Weather is getting hotter and drier.

15.  Wind increases and/or changes direction.

16.  Getting frequent spot fires across line.

17.  Terrain and fuels make escape to safety zones difficult.

18. Taking a nap near the fire line.

One of the firefighters said that they were violating nearly all of the 10 and 18.  He was not far wrong.  The bold in the 10 indicate what they did right. For the record, in Arizona’s 19-fatality Yarnell Fire, #1,2 and 4 in the first and #s 1,3,4,11,15 in the second were violated.  Unburned fuel between you and the fire, and cannot see the main fire are big concerns.

The group of four were lucky one of their number had experience on Insula and could navigate the lake, no easy feat. She also had the sense to tape her flashlight to the stern, so the canoe behind her could follow her in the smoke.  The fire traveled faster than canoeists can paddle.  Had the firefighters been a half hour further, had they not stopped to talk, they would have been at the east end, where they could have moved north directly away from the fire.  They of course had no way of knowing that the fire would do what it did.

Other lessons I would offer:

When several things seem to all be going wrong, recognize that you might be on a downward spiral (the words used here), regardless of what you might have been told. In neurology, my field, meningitis was so scary that when I argued with myself or others about whether we needed to do a spinal tap for diagnosis, not a difficult procedure, I did it. Perhaps that analogy could be applied here: when firefighters start arguing pros and cons of shelter deployment, just deploy. When you argue about whether or not to close campsites, just close them. Again, my deepest, deepest respect to these six and for all who put their lives on the line. I loved Insula as it was, but it wasn’t worth putting their lives at risk.

My final lesson here: time is one of the most valuable commodities in the woods. Use it wisely. 





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