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Fall weather could help contain Greenwood Fire, experts say

The Greenwood Fire was at 49% containment and covered 26,112 acres as of Wednesday.

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Patrick Johnson, a fire behavior analyst and fuels specialist with the Superior National Forest, talks during a media briefing on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in the Superior National Forest about the conditions that existed in the area near Lake County Highway 2 and the Jackpot Trail OHV trailhead south of Isabella. Johnson estimated that flame lengths were over 50 feet and the forest was experiencing intermittent crowning with an average ambient temperature of over 800 degrees at the peak of fire activity and called it an unsurvivable situation. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune
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Experts were optimistic about containment of the Greenwood Fire on Wednesday morning as weather conditions remained favorable, with lower temperatures and higher relative humidity. The fire was 49% contained as of Wednesday.

Rick Davis, an incident meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said intermittent rain has helped suppress some fire activity. According to a news release from responding agencies, no fire movement is anticipated on the surface, but hot spots continue to burn in the peat layer.

“Every day we go and the fire doesn't become active is better for the fire,” Davis said. “It certainly looks like the next two weeks are very favorable weather conditions.”

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Rick Davis, incident meteorologist with National Weather Service gestures while explaining fire weather at the Greenwood Fire on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in the Superior National Forest near Lake County Highway 2 and the Jackpot Trail OHV trailhead south of Isabella. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

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The Greenwood Fire has covered just over 26,000 acres, or about 41 square miles, since it was detected Aug. 15. Near the Jackpot Off-Highway Vehicle Trail, Fire Behavior Analyst and Fuels Specialist Patrick Johnson expects up to 90% mortality of many red and white pine, balsam fir and aspen birch trees. The region, with trees Johnson estimated to be about 70 to 100 years old, burned Aug. 23 during a hot, dry and windy period that encouraged the fire to grow by nearly 10,000 acres. On that day, 14 primary structures and 57 outbuildings were destroyed as the fire burned at least 800 degrees and flames reached 50 to 75 feet high.

“That was one of the most significant fire days that I’ve seen in my career here in Minnesota,” Johnson said.

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The Greenwood Fire burned so intensely in areas it burned down to rock and mineral soil seen on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in the Superior National Forest near Lake County Highway 2 and the Jackpot Trail OHV trailhead south of Isabella. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Most of the trees in the area won’t be able to be salvaged. The charred remains will instead be left to become habitat for woodpeckers. However, the burned region of the forest is expected to be replenished with red pines, which depend on forest fires to clear brush from the ground to allow seeds to germinate. The trees that do survive will be good seed sources, Johnson said.

Many recreational areas within the Greenwood Fire closure, including the Jackpot Trail and the McDougal Lake Campground, are expected to remain closed to the public for a while for safety reasons. Johnson wasn’t able to give a timeline of the closure, but stated that currently, falling trees pose a risk to public safety. Trees in the Superior National Forest with a shallow root system have had the brush covering those roots burned away. There have been many trees falling during high wind bursts during passing storms over the last few days.

Davis said he is able to predict when wind speeds will reach 30 miles per hour or higher, which allows fire crews time to vacate to safety until the storms pass.

Billie Washburn, division supervisor trainee, said crews have been clearing trees that fell Tuesday and blocked roadways as seasonal homeowners in the restricted area along Highway 1 were allowed to access their cabins beginning Wednesday morning.

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A charred driveway seen on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in the Superior National Forest near Lake County Highway 2 and the Jackpot Trail OHV trailhead south of Isabella. The Greenwood fire destroyed 14 primary structures and 57 outbuildings. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

“A lot of people see no fire and they’re like, ‘Why are these people still here?’” Washburn said. “There is so much work. The fire part is just a few days. There’s so much work afterwards — there’s lots of little smoldering spots that could kick up.”

Washburn said the aftermath of the fire will require years of restoration work.

While the fire is 49% contained, it isn’t expected to be fully controlled or out until snow cover.

Past prescribed burn shows advantages to Greenwood control

During a tour Wednesday morning, members of the media were shown an area of forest that was part of the Pitcha Pine Prescribed Burn on June 1, 2019. Because trees had been thinned and burned in a controlled setting to mimic natural fire systems, the area near Pitcha Lake Road was much less damaged by the Greenwood Fire when it reached the area Aug. 25.

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A partially charred pine cone rests on the forest floor on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in the Superior National Forest near the Pitcha Lake Road west of Isabella. The area was subject to a prescribed burn two years ago eliminating much of the fuel in the area which slowed down the Greenwood Fire when it spread to the area. The cause of the Greenwood Fire was a lightning strike. Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

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Flame lengths only reached about 2 to 4 feet because there wasn't as much fuel to burn, and the fire did minimal damage to the trees and brush. Firefighters were able to contain the fire from that area because it was safer and more manageable for crews to access. The fire did not burn as deep into the forest floor, leaving some brush cover untouched and tree root systems sturdier.

“I would feel completely safe to camp right there,” Washburn said of the site near Pitcha Lake Road.

Johnson estimates 5% mortality for trees in the stand, after about 10-20% mortality from the 2019 prescribed burn.

“There’s going to be really good survival in these trees because of the work that we’d done before,” Johnson said. “In the natural setting, a lot more of the forest would’ve looked like this.”

He said a majority of the Greenwood Fire’s acreage will look more like the charred Jackpot Trail because of fire suppression techniques used over the last century.

The Greenwood Fire remains active in the deep peat soil, and 341 personnel are onsite to work on containment.

“The hard work that the firefighters and the crews are doing, along with the good weather for firefighting — higher relative humidities, cloud cover and a little bit of rain — that helps get from that extreme fire activity into the creeping and smoldering now,” Davis said.

Related Topics: FIRESLAKE COUNTY
Laura Butterbrodt covers health for the Duluth News Tribune. She has a bachelor of arts in journalism from South Dakota State University and has been working as a reporter in Minnesota and South Dakota since 2014.
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