The July 4, 1999, storm blew down millions of trees, leaving forest fire fuel

Tom Hartman paddles on Moose Lake near Ely in front of downed trees in 1999. He worked for Tom and Woods’ Moose Lake Wilderness Canoe Trips. The U.S. Forest Service is trying to come up with a plan for dealing with the acres of downed trees that have increased the risk of fire.

Millions of trees bowed before the storm’s might but never recovered their posture as hurricane-force winds blew through Northeastern Minnesota.

The violence was short-lived. Its effects are still felt in the forest.

Twenty years ago Thursday a storm ripped a path through half a million acres of the Superior National Forest, much of it inside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, leaving downed trees thrown together as if by a drunken Paul Bunyan trying to set up a campfire.

In some areas, that’s exactly what became of the damaged woods.

Two of the state’s largest wildfires lit up areas of the forest that were affected by the 1999 blowdown, including the 76,000-acre Ham Lake fire from 2007 and a part of the 93,000-acre Pagami Creek fire in 2011.

Conditions are still ripe for more fires, though the nature of the danger has shifted.

“Our fire risk is slowly getting less; there’s no more leaves or needles,” said Ellen Bogardus-Szymaniak, the Tofte District Ranger for the Superior National Forest. “But what’s going up is a huge concern — birch and balsam. Balsam fir is, in essence, gasoline.”

That leads to bigger, harder-to-fight fires.

“It’s lots of fuel that loves to burn and loves to burn when it’s windy,” Bogardus-Szymaniak said.

At the same time, the blowdown has helped regenerate the forest as part of its long-term natural lifecycle.

“Moose were very happy with the young brush shrubs coming up,” she said, and eagles and osprey were able to adapt as well. “We live in the boreal forest. It thrives on disturbance.”

The July 4 derecho — a system of straight-line winds that originated near Fargo — started before dawn and struck the Boundary Waters at 12:30 p.m.

“Winds estimated at 80 to 100 mph moved rapidly through the area, causing serious damage to 600 square miles of forest in the Arrowhead region,” reads an account from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “As the derecho entered St. Louis County, a wind gust of 81 mph was recorded at the Chisholm-Hibbing Airport, and the terminal building and hangar suffered damage. A semi-trailer truck was blown over on U.S. Highway 53 near Canyon, Minnesota, just northwest of Duluth.”

The storm did not relent until it reached Maine, wreaking havoc across Ontario and Quebec along the way. Two people were killed across the length of the storm.

In Minnesota that day, dozens were stranded and injured in the wilderness — some requiring rescue by float planes — though no one was killed.

Intentional fires or “prescribed burns” have targeted some of the blowdown to help control and prevent future wildfires, though given the wide and rugged expanse of damage, it’s impossible to treat it all.

“We did a lot of cleanup around the Gunflint Trail,” Bogardus-Szymaniak said. “But it’s not all cleaned up; not even close.”

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