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MPR’s Bob Kelleher takes a look back on the one year anniversary of BWCA blowdown, and what has happened since.

On July 4, 1999, wilderness campers and vacationers in and around Northeast Minnesota's Superior National Forest were startled to see a looming black line of clouds darken the sky. It was a massive storm that over the next few hours flooded homes, blew out highways, and dropped millions of trees across the forest and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Scores of people were injured, while the popular camping and canoe wilderness was forever changed.

The Boundary Waters–Canadian Derecho (also called the Boundary Waters Blowdown), produced straight-line winds of up to 100 mph, which uprooted and toppled nearly 500,000 acres of the BWCA's trees in a massive blowdown. It began in Fargo mid-morning on July 4, 1999, and plowed at a northeasterly angle across the state. It mowed across northeastern Minnesota, crossed into Canada, and fizzled out in Maine the following morning, traveling 1,300 miles and lasting 22 hours.


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BOB KELLEHER: The storm first hit Minnesota's Iron Range communities. A deluge ripping through Hibbing and Virginia. Roads were washed out. Some people were trapped in their homes for days.

Many buildings were severely damaged. By the time the storm rolled into the Superior National Forest, it was packing straight line winds, its speeds more typical of hurricanes. Mickey Scott watched the green and black clouds roll over her Clearwater Lake home, just off the Gunflint Trail.

MICKEY SCOTT: Within a matter of five minutes, a huge wind picked up, and the lake just became boiling. It was amazing. And we just couldn't even see across the lake any longer. And trees just kept coming down and kept coming down. We lost every large tree on our property.

BOB KELLEHER: Scores of campers were injured in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Some of the worst damage struck the aging trees in the popular wilderness area, while 2,000 campers found whatever protection they could from the falling trees. 19 were airlifted with serious injuries. But incredibly, no one was killed.

It was several days before portages were hacked open enough to let many people back out. Resorts along the Gunflint Trail took a beating. Charlotte Eckroot Nelson found trees on the roof of her Windigo Lodge and water inside.

CHARLOTTE ECKROOT NELSON: We've had windows blow out. The rain came right in. We got them boarded up. Trees everywhere are down. It was a very intense wind. It's very, very bad.

BOB KELLEHER: St. Louis Cook and Lake counties were in a disaster mode, struggling to reopen highways covered by trees or flooded by rainwater. But even in the days shortly after the storm, it was the word fire that became the biggest concern as a result of the blowdown. Forest Service officials began talking in July about the fire danger from millions of trees snapped like chopsticks and drying in the sun. Plans were laid to begin removing down timber, especially near the homes and resorts of the Gunflint Trail. The Forest Service's Bill Swope was brought in this spring to manage the controlled burns intended to reduce the fuel available for wildfire.

BILL SWOPE: I don't remember seeing anything that's this vast of area and this much stuff on the ground. It's incredible. There's stuff everywhere.

And it's just-- it's the worst I've ever seen. All you need is the right day and to get an ignition start. You need to-- if you get the right wind and temperatures and relative humidity, it's going to go.

BOB KELLEHER: But timber inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness cannot be cleared by law. An expert said it's not a question of whether there will be a huge conflagration. The question is when. And if it began inside the BWCA, to where it's been estimated there are 70 tons of timber drying on every acre, it would be hard to contain inside the wilderness.

The Forest Service prepared with aircraft, large payload helicopters, and two precision water bombers stationed full time in the Superior Forest. Any fires would be hit hard and fast. When fire did break out near tower, an army of firefighters had it doused within days.

Home and resort owners began creating firebreaks, cutting back woods from their buildings. Hundreds ordered elaborate sprinkler systems that can keep property moist when wildfire approaches. Gunflint Assistant Fire Chief George Carlson says the sprinklers have been used for years in the Canadian wilderness.

GEORGE CARLSON: The temperature drops right away, and we're in a rain shower. Basically, we're emulating Mother Nature's best mitigator for a wildfire, rainfall.

BOB KELLEHER: And Mother Nature has been doing her bit so far this year. After a worrying dry spell in the spring, heavy rain has reduced the risk of fire for the short term. But the fear of fire may be hurting area outfitters and resorts as much as fire itself could. New figures show entries are down about 10% across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, but off as much as 30% on lakes near the blowdown at the upper end of the Gunflint Trail. It's a paradox for seagull outfitter Roger Hahn. He has fewer customers, but they're having a wonderful time in the empty forest.

ROGER HAHN: It's definitely quiet out there. One woman, in fact, sent me email after a trip and said they joked that they were in the twilight zone, that there was no one else out there, and they spent two nights without seeing anybody in two different spots in a fairly busy route.

BOB KELLEHER: The Forest Service hopes to complete environmental studies late this year before opening new fire breaks within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Minnesota's congressional delegation is pushing a $9 million appropriation through Congress to help the cleanup. However, critics say the process is too slow. Senator Rod Grams holds a congressional hearing in Grand Rapids Friday to consider forest management issues, including management of the Superior National Forest and BWCAW.

Meanwhile, locals say the Superior National Forest is as lush and green this summer as it has been in years. The streams are high and the lakes are full. But experts warn when dry weather returns, so will the risk of a very big fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In Duluth, I'm Bob Kelleher. Minnesota Public Radio.


Digitization made possible by the State of Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, approved by voters in 2008.

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