Fires Plague Paddlesports Operations
Boundary Waters, Kern River area suffer at hands of Mother Nature
Dry times in the West and Midwest have produced wildfires in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Southern California that are wreaking havoc on raft manufacturers and canoe outfitters. Below is Paddling Life’s look at how they’re affecting various paddlesport operations.
Ham Lake Fire, Boundary Waters
Barely a year and a half after a wildfire swept through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) and torched more than 690 acres, the area is facing another fire threatening the livelihood of local canoe outfitters. A wildfire dubbed the Ham Lake Fire has burned nearly 60,000 acres (34,132 in the U.S.; 25,479 in Canada) in the Gunflint Trail region of northern Minnesota, with fire fighters acknowledging only 20 percent containment. Despite resources coming from 28 states and Canada to help battle the blaze, so far the fire has claimed 133 structures in the U.S. alone, including 61 residences, 17 commercial buildings and 55 outbuilding and other structures. The estimated total value of the lost structures is $3.7 million.
While no lives have been lost to the blaze, it has impacted outfitters, especially those on the Sag Lake Trail, that are just getting ready to enter their prime tourist season. “The entry points are closed, so the fires have definitely affected people’s canoeing plans,” says Marilyn Kufahl, manager of Voyageur Canoe, an outfitter which lost four employee housing buildings and a storage shed to the blaze. “Our season is just getting started, but with the walleye opener just last weekend it’s definitely upsetting the plans of people who were intending to come up.”
While an outfitter called Tuscarora lost a small shed to the fire, the hardest hit has been Superior North Outfitters, which, says Kufahl, has lost nearly half of its structures as well as its fleet of Kevlar canoes. Among the buildings lost were a bunkhouse for guides and its outfitter building. “We fared better than some of our neighbors,” says Kufahl. “But it’s still a very active fire, and everyone’s pretty busy fighting it. Everyone’s still concerned about its northern flank, as well as the finger portion.”
According to the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center, an estimated 200 residences and over 20 commercial operations still remain threatened, with costs to fight it reaching the $5 million mark. “Response has been tremendous and the effort will continue until significant rains fall to reduce fire and fire danger,” says Minnesota Interagency Fire Center (MIFC) Coordinator Tom Fasteland. Fasteland adds that significant direct-line progress has been completed on the south flank of the fire finger from the Iron Lake area to Gunflint Lake, with a burnout planned for the northern part of the east flank of the finger. Winds on May 13 pushed the fire north to Saganaga, Spoon, and South Arm, Northern Light lakes, while fire fighters in Canada continue to focus on an area south of Beulah Lake toward Little Gunflint Lake, protecting structures around Saganaga Lake, and securing the region between Saganaga and Spoon Lake.
The Canadian IMT recently evacuated seven Americans from the Canadian side of the border on Saganaga Lake (Red Pine Island), and nine structures were lost May 10 on the north side of Gunflint Lake in Canada. The good news is that evacuation orders for the area along the Gunflint Trail between Gunflint #1 (7401 Gunflint Trail) and Swamper Lake, as well as the area between Poplar Lake Fire Station and Voyageur Point (Cook County 85), have been lifted. However, a mandatory evacuation order still remains in effect for the west end Gunflint Trail (Cook County 85) and all roadways off of it to the north and west of Voyageur Point. Efforts are now focusing on containment and providing structural protection in the Gunflint and Loon lakes areas.
According to the Paddlesports Industry Association, which offers a disaster relief program for such catastrophes, one of its members, Bruce Kerfoot, of Minnesota’s Gunflint Outfitters, claims it’s “the worst wildfire in the history of Minnesota for nearly a century.” Kerfoot, whose conference center is now hosting the Forest Service’s IC unit, is doing his part by serving up to 400 daily lunches for fire fighters. He is also quick to credit Mike Prom of Voyageurs as instrumental in helping save the buildings of nearby Seagull Outfitters. Info: www.mnics.org. and www.hamlakefire.com.
Fire Forces Hyside to Flee SoCal Offices
While fires are raging in the Boundary Waters, across the country a snowpack of just 35 percent of average has helped fuel another, dubbed the Woffirt Fire, wreak havoc on the Kernville region of Southern California. “We had to evacuate the office this weekend,” says Hyside Inflatables President Dick Dechant. “We had to complete move out of two buildings and put up a fire line. Our offices are about a mile out of town at the mouth of Caldwell Creek Canyon, and it came up to our back door.”
Dechant adds that he received help from the staff of Kernville retailer Sierra South, which shut down and had its entire staff come over to help with the evacuation efforts. “There were about 30 people asking what they should take,” says Dechant. “We carried all the office equipment out—the computers, mainframe, and even a filing cabinet filed with 25 years’ worth of customer files, drawings and designs. It was a great community effort.”
Luckily, with a 30 mph wind blowing the flames right toward the Hyside headquarters, a “miraculous” wind change at the last second saved the buildings.
The fire was the second to strike the area within a 10-day period, and foretells what could be a severe fire season for drought-plagued California. “It’s the worst year anyone can remember,” says Dechant. “Maybe I’ll have to get into the weed-whacking business.”