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Is the Minnesota Forest Fire a Symptom of Climate Change?

An August 18 lightning strike in a northern Minnesota forest after an unusually hot summer started a month-long fire that brought a pall of smoke to Chicago nearly a month after the blaze started.  Driven by northwest winds, the fire in the 1.1 million acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness that straddles the Canadian border grew from about 11,000 acres to more than 100,000, said Doug Anderson, a spokesman for the firefighting effort.

The Pagami Creek fire jumped about 16 miles east in a single day, “unprecedented for northern Minnesota,” said Lisa Radosevich-Craig, a firefighting spokeswoman.  The conflagration is in an area popular with canoeists and campers deep within the three million-acre Superior National Forest, approximately 80 miles north of Duluth.  According to Radosevich-Craig, the fire was spread by near-drought conditions that had already prompted the Forest Service to close some parts of the reserve and limit campfires in others.  “Typically more than an inch of rain would have fallen in this area during this time but didn’t,” Radosevich-Craig said.  “Where the winds are coming from and the strength of the winds is unprecedented.”  The fire has burned at least 160 square miles at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, making it one of Minnesota’s largest on record.

The smoke was heavy enough in the Chicago area – which is 600 miles to the south — that some people complained about burning eyes and breathing problems, the National Weather Service said.  No one has been injured by the fire and no buildings have been destroyed.  “Nobody would have guessed it would be doubling and quadrupling in size,” said Jean Bergerson, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center.

“Sometimes it’s like snow falling, there’s so much ash coming down.  And the smoke is so thick it hurts your eyes and throat.  But other times the wind switches and you can’t tell there’s a fire at all. It’s kind of odd,” said Sue Butler, owner of the Trestle Inn saloon on Crooked Lake.  The forest fire is the largest in Minnesota since 1918, surpassing 2007’s Ham Lake fire, which burned about 38,000 acres in Minnesota and another 38,000 in Ontario while also burning 163 buildings. 

“But the colder temperatures should really help.  It’s a lot harder for fire to spread when it’s in the 50s than when it’s in the 80s,” said Doug Anderson, a spokesman for the inter-agency team battling the blaze.  “People (fire officials) were pretty surprised when they saw that 100,000-acre number go up on the board.  But I think there’s some optimism out there now.”  Fires in wilderness areas typically are allowed to run their course because they renew the forest naturally.  That was the initial policy with this fire as well, but Superior National Forest officials began an all-out assault to prevent the fire from spreading.  Those efforts came too late, and officials say they didn’t have enough firefighters or aircraft to stop the fire from growing significantly.

In terms of the haze that has blanketed the Chicago area, “The smoke is a big problem, added to the impact that mold count is higher, highest number we’ve had all year. The mold makes the smoke worse, and the smoke makes the mold worse,” said Dr. Joseph Leija, of Gottlieb Memorial Hospital in Melrose Park, IL.

The fact that Minnesota is having its biggest forest fire in nearly a century naturally leads to the subject of global warming’s role in the blaze.  Wausau, WI-based WAOW.com’s “Weather You Like It or Not” column notes that “According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Climatic Data Center, the meteorological summer 2011 (June – August) was the second warmest in recorded history.  The average temperature across the U.S was 74.5 degrees which is 2.4 degrees above normal.  The hottest summer ever was that of 1936 with an average temperature of 74.6 degrees.  However the states of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana did have their hottest summer on record in 2011.  Of course they also had exceptional drought.  Their number of days with 100 degrees or higher was off the charts.  Some areas had over 70 days of such heat.”

Global warming and years of outdated fire-prevention strategies are setting the stage for massive “mega-fires” that scar communities’ homes and pocketbooks.  Early findings from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) trace the circumstances around eight mega-fires across the world in an effort to find clues on how best to avoid them and minimize potential damage.  These fires are defined more by their impact on people and the environment than by their specific size.  “Mega-fire is more of a concept than a construct,” said Robert Keane, a research ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory who was not involved with the report.  “What I interpret (mega-fire) to mean is not only is it large, but it affects a lot of people,” he said.  In the United States, just one or two percent of all wildfires become large incidents, but they engulf about 85 percent of total suppression-related costs and total more than 95 percent of the total acres burned, the report notes, citing earlier work.  “Among all wildfires, mega-fires are the most costly, the most destructive and the most damaging. Against the backdrop of global warming, their onset may be signaling that many conventional wildfire protection strategies are ‘running out of road.'” 

“The growing number of large wildfires and the increasing incidence of mega-fires — along with climate change projections for hotter and drier fire seasons — lend urgency to this issue,” according to the report.

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