Burn, Baby, Burn

If Lee Frelich loves the Boundary Waters so much, why does he want to burn it down?

Lee Frelich, a forest ecologist with the University of Minnesota, is studying the effect of wind and fire on more than 750 plots inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Last summer, one of his students working in the field had to flee the Cavity Lake Fire—which burned 35 square miles, the area’s biggest fire since 1894. According to Frelich, the fire was the best thing that could have happened to the BWCAW.

Last year was the most active year for forest fires in recent memory, with 119 wildfires reported in Superior National Forest. What are the ramifications? There’s been a fire deficit in the BWCAW over the past century, and most of the trees there—the jack pine, the red pine, the black spruce, and paper birch—are dependent on fire for their continued existence. These fires allow them to reproduce. The Forest Service is doing a good job of letting fires burn inside the wilderness, but controlling them when they get near a populated area, like the Gunflint Trail.

Northern Minnesota is in the middle of a drought that extended through the winter, with low snowfall. What’s your prediction for forest fires this year? It could be a heck of a fire year. Anybody who has thrown dry pine needles in a campfire and seen the sparks knows how combustible an evergreen forest can be. In the areas where there’s still blowdown [downed trees from a massive 1999 windstorm], there are tons of dry fuel per acre. Forest fires in the BWCAW are a phenomenon that could become more common, especially if global warming produces more droughts and windstorms.

Speaking of global warming, can you explain your statement that forest fires help some trees adapt to climate change? Each time a jack pine forest burns, its seeds are released. The seeds that become trees are the ones best suited to the climate at that time. Basically, fires deal our forests a new hand of cards, and the trees play all their aces through natural selection. The big question, however, is whether global warming will occur faster than trees can adapt to it.

You have also said parts of the BWCAW that don’t burn by wildfires should be set aflame in prescribed burns. Is there a place for that kind of management in a wilderness area? Fire is a natural process, and wilderness areas are places where natural processes are supposed to play out. But northern Minnesota now is so fragmented by cities and development that fires aren’t allowed to burn across the landscape anymore. Prescribed burns should be considered maintenance in the BWCAW, like clearing portage trails and cleaning up campsites.

Canoeists may be saddened to see that the Cavity Lake fire turned thousands of acres of forest into charcoal. Will there be any bright spots for people visiting the areas that burned recently? There will be fields of wildflowers, millions of magenta-colored Bicknell’s Geranium flowers and fireweed, and lots of ferns and tree saplings. It will be beautiful. And in 10 years, it will be forest again