U.S. Joint Fire Science Program


Date of this Version


Document Type



Fire Science Brief, Issue 23, December 2008


US government work.


On Independence Day, 1999, a storm system that originated over the Gulf of Mexico and passed through North Dakota dealt a severe blow to nearly half a million acres of the Superior National Forest in northern Minnesota. The blowdown, or derecho, packed winds exceeding 90 miles per hour and left in its wake downed and damaged trees and a dangerously high fuel load. Nearly half a million acres of forest were affected, primarily in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and the Gunfl int Trail Corridor, a strip of land in public and private ownership that supports a thriving tourist trade in the world’s premier canoe wilderness. Immediately after the blowdown, the Forest Service began to implement a strategy to reduce risks to life and property in the corridor. Within the BWCAW, some exceptions to the Wilderness Act regulating human activity in primitive areas were allowed in accordance with the Forest Service mandate to ensure wildfi re does not exit the wilderness. Prescribed fi re applied on strategic sites at the boundary of the wilderness area later proved successful at containing a wildfi re in 2006, but a second, human-caused fi re in 2007 caused signifi cant damage to buildings in the corridor. A number of research projects comparing treatments allowed in the corridor, including salvage logging and prescribed fi re, helped guide the long-term management plan for the area. Results are not always clear, however, and managers have to consider a number of tradeoffs, balancing the risks to life and property versus the overall health of an ecosystem and the fl ora and fauna that have evolved along with moderate to severe fi re with a return interval of approximately 70 years. Moreover, as the climate warms, managers may confront more-frequent severe weather events that will challenge their ability to respond.