Weeks from now, or maybe months, when the smoke finally clears and the last yellow-shirted firefighter goes home and the trauma of lost property settles in, many Northlanders will remember the fires of 2021 as a terrible thing, as devastation and destruction.

That’s certainly the case for anyone who lost a home or cabin or their favorite stand of white pine.

But talk to a forest ecologist or wildlife biologist and you will get a far different reaction. Even yet this fall, they will tell you, if the rains return, the first shoots of a new forest will be sprouting as a 10,000-year-old cycle continues.

Of course, fires are bad when they burn across a wild landscape and into someone’s home or cabin or lodge. And as more people move deeper into the woods, that danger keeps increasing. But wildfires that stay in wild areas are often the catalyst for a vibrant forest, creating new wildlife habitat and regenerating nutrients back into the soil. It’s been the biggest fires over the past 200 years that, in large part, created the far-northern Minnesota forest we see today.

A bull moose in this January 2020 photo walks through an area burned by the 2011 Pagami Creek Fire. Notice the stumps of charred trees, but also the new growth of birch and aspen — perfect browse for moose to munch on. The Pagami Creek Fire area is one of few places in northern Minnesota where moose are thriving. 
Contributed / Mike Schrage
A bull moose in this January 2020 photo walks through an area burned by the 2011 Pagami Creek Fire. Notice the stumps of charred trees, but also the new growth of birch and aspen — perfect browse for moose to munch on. The Pagami Creek Fire area is one of few places in northern Minnesota where moose are thriving. Contributed / Mike Schrage

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Take the Pagami Creek Fire that burned across the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in 2011, not far north of where the Greenwood Fire burns now. The Pagami Creek Fire started with a lighting strike in mid-August about 13 miles east of Ely. It was allowed to smolder for weeks but then began to grow under unusually dry, hot and windy conditions. On Sept. 12, it raced across more than 16 miles of the BWCAW, burning 70,000 acres, or 110 square miles, in a single day, threatening Forest Service rangers and campers still inside the wilderness. At 92,000 acres total, it remains Minnesota’s largest forest fire since the 1930s. No one was killed and only one cabin burned.

Flash forward a decade and the Pagami Creek Fire area is now a haven for moose, blueberries and birds. In fact, the area around the region’s biggest fires of the 20 years, like the Ham Lake and Cavity Lake fires near the end of the Gunflint Trail, are among the few areas where moose are thriving in Minnesota.

Just two months after the July 2006 Cavity Lake fire, these birch saplings had sprouted from the ashes along Seagull Lake and were already 18 inches tall. Fifteen years later, the area is a lush, thick forest — perfect habitat for moose and other widllife. 
Clint Austin / 2006 file / Duluth News Tribune
Just two months after the July 2006 Cavity Lake fire, these birch saplings had sprouted from the ashes along Seagull Lake and were already 18 inches tall. Fifteen years later, the area is a lush, thick forest — perfect habitat for moose and other widllife. Clint Austin / 2006 file / Duluth News Tribune

“Our northern Minnesota forests evolved in a landscape of periodic fire and our wildlife (evolved) along with it,’’ said Mike Schrage, a wildlife biologist for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Schrage is part of the team that surveys Minnesota’s moose population from helicopters each winter.

“From a moose standpoint, the bigger the fire, the better," he said.

At about 26,000 acres as of Thursday, the Greenwood Fire is moderate by human settlement standards, but still among the biggest to threaten Minnesota homes and cabins in several years. Still, it pales in comparison with other BWCAW-area fires that were traced by Miron "Bud" Heinselman, the renowned University of Minnesota forest history expert.

The "big one" for the BWCAW area was in 1865, when nearly 450,000 acres burned. Heinselman, who died in 1993, found evidence of major fires as far back as 1595. A 170,000-acre fire hit in 1894, and a 224,000-acre blaze swept across the border lakes country in 1875.

Like the Greenwood and Pagami Creek fires, most of those probably started with a lightning strike. On average, the forest in and around the BWCAW burns every 100 years, Heinselman found. Not all at once, of course, but in chunks. In some of the drier, rockier areas with little topsoil, large fires occur every 50 years or so.

While media reports often refer to fire as “destroying” acres of forest, most fires skip and jump, leaving ample patches of green and a few standing live trees that will provide seeds for the new forest. Even where everything seems charred black, new seeds will blow in and take hold. This has been happening, experts note, since the last glaciers.

“The Greenwood Lake Fire, as I look at it, is behaving as Mother Nature intended … lighting strike during dry conditions with some warm temperatures and wind to give it a push,’’ Schrage said. “It’s not destroying the forest — just changing it.”

One iconic Northland tree species, jackpine, needs a hot fire to open its cones and release seed, otherwise they gradually die out. Paper birch seed needs to land on a recently scarred forest floor to have a chance at growing. Black-backed woodpeckers select their nest trees in areas that have standing burned trees.

Superior National Forest field researchers take measurements at a study plot on Seagull Lake's Three Mile Island after a 2002 fire. Birch, aspen, jackpine and other species were growing strong four years after the fire. 
Clint Austin / 2006 file / Duluth News Tribune
Superior National Forest field researchers take measurements at a study plot on Seagull Lake's Three Mile Island after a 2002 fire. Birch, aspen, jackpine and other species were growing strong four years after the fire. Clint Austin / 2006 file / Duluth News Tribune

Lee Frelich, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Forest Ecology and who has carried on some of Heinselman’s work on the impacts of fire on Northeastern Minnesota forests, said he’s been in the Greenwood Fire area enough to know that the forest had been mostly second-growth aspen and birch, with spruce and fir growing below the taller trees. That spruce and fir are susceptible to budworm infestations, leaving it dead and dry, but also to simply drying out during extremely dry periods like summer 2021.

“With a drought like we have now, live firs are just as explosively flammable as dead ones,” Frelich noted.

Now, much of that explosive understory is gone, clearing way for new growth.

“The fire should clean up a lot of the diseased fir, and help regenerate fire-dependent pine and black spruce, as well as resprout aspen and birch,” Frelich noted, adding that birch, a favorite of moose when it is just sprouting, will get a jumpstart because their seeds are viable in the fall.

The burned areas in the Greenwood Fire “will create a lot of habitat for species like woodpeckers that use standing snags, and the many insects, fungi and mosses that use fallen logs,” Frelich noted, adding that the burned organic matter is recycled back into the soil as nutrients to supply the new trees.

It’s part of an age-old cycle that is active again in this summer of drought. In addition to the Greenwood Fire, dozens of other, smaller fires have burned in northern Minnesota. More than 100,000 acres have burned just across the border in Ontario's Quetico Provincial Park. Even usually cool and damp Isle Royale is seeing wildfires reclaim their role.

“Northeastern Minnesota forests are mostly fire dependent, and need the renewal that comes with fire — the clearing of diseased trees, regulating the proportion of early and late successional forests across the landscape and balancing wildlife habitat for many different species,” Frelich said. “The forests evolved with fire, which carries out these functions, for the most part, better than logging.”