From The Front Lines Of The Ham Lake Fire: “Gunflint Burning: Fire In The Boundary Waters”

Submitted/ This copyright photograph by Layne Kennedy shows Seagull Lake during the Ham Lake fire. The fire plume at right is believed to be a cabin or propane tank explosion.

 A forest fire ignited by embers blown from a campfire raged over 75,000 acres, destroyed 144 buildings, and cost $11 million to extinguish over the course of two weeks.

The drama of the May 2007 Ham Lake fire was nothing less than that of life and death.

Bob Monehan, 76, sprayed water and manned his sprinklers through the night as flames surrounded his home near the Gunflint Trail, and he realized his escape route was no longer.

Volunteer firefighters made a stand at the End of the Trail campground at the tip of the Gunflint Trail as the wind-driven fire threatened to cross the trail and close their route to safety.

A group of campers on Seagull Lake – including Lee Frelich, a University of Minnesota professor and researcher known for his work on the forest fires that shape the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness – found themselves witnesses to a blaze that spread rapidly through the crowns of the forest trees while shooting burning embers in advance like rounds of tracer fire.

Barb Thompson of the United States Forest Service directed an aerial attack, dropping pingpong-sized spheres of fire on the forest below to create a blackened barrier to stop the fire’s southward advance and save cabins and homes.

Submitted/ Cary Griffith tells the story of the May 2007 Ham Lake fire, one of the largest wildfires in modern Minnesota history.

These are just a few examples of the drama that author Cary Griffith has captured as he tells the story of the Ham Lake fire in “Gunflint Burning: Fire in the Boundary Waters” (336 pages, University of Minnesota press).

His book is described as a comprehensive account of what was one of the most destructive wildfires in modern Minnesota history. Griffith provides an account not only of the decision-making and actions taken to battle the blaze, but also tells the personal experiences of those directly affected.

The fire’s only casualty was the man blamed for starting it. Steve Posniak, a retired federal worker, took his own life Dec. 16, 2008, after a judge ruled on a motion in the federal charges he faced.

Posniak was camped on Ham Lake on May 5, 2007, the last day of his 27th trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness that he loved. From what can be pieced together from those who saw him that day, and the investigators who interviewed him afterward, it’s evident that Posniak was burning some of the paper he had with him in the firegrate at his campsite on Ham Lake that morning. Perhaps while he was in his tent packing up his gear, embers from the grate were driven by gusty winds and ignited the fire that quickly grew out of control.

Submitted/ Dan Baumann with the Gunflint Volunteer Fire Department captured this image of a structure fire during the Ham Lake Fire. The fire raged over 75,000 acres of forest and destroyed 144 buildings.

Griffith said a number of factors created the conditions that allowed this blaze to explode as it did. It was extremely dry, and strong winds spiraled and changed the fire’s direction away from the area of the previous year’s Cavity Lake fire, where firefighters were expecting its progress to be stopped by a lack of fuel. Being early in the season, many were also caught off guard. Many residents along the Gunflint Trail had not yet put their protective sprinkler systems into operation. Professional firefighters were not yet geared up for an explosive fire.

Griffith is also the author of “Lost in the Wild,” a book which tells the separate stories of two men who survived for days on their own with little more than the clothes they wore in the Quetico Provincial Park and Boundary Waters wilderness. He’s skilled at offering the personal perspective while also providing insight into the larger story.

He said he started researching the Ham Lake fire in 2010, and continued to collect information and interview people on and off for several years while working full time and writing a novel. For the most part, people were willing to tell him about their experiences, although some would not. The widow of Steve Posniak was especially helpful, sharing documents collected for her late husband’s court fight that included many details Griffith could not otherwise have obtained.

A fire like this could happen again, although the conditions would have to be just right for it, as they were in 2007, the author said. “Gunflint Burning: Fire in the Boundary Waters’’ offers a very real sense of what it was like for those who faced the prospect of losing everything to the raging fire, and how they struggled and rallied to subdue it.

Photo by Tom Cherveny/ This photo taken from the portage into Peter Lake shows how the landscape is recovering nine years after the Cavity Lake Fire, which occurred one year prior to the Ham Lake Fire.