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Greenwood Fire: Post wildfire assessments provide key information and recommendations

January 21, 2022

Greenwood BAER treatments map, courtesy of the Geospatial Technology and Applications Center

MINNESOTA – The USDA Forest Service’s response to wildfires does not end after suppression is completed. The 2021 fire season in northern Minnesota was unusually intense for residents, recreators and land managers alike. A severe drought, coupled with hot, dry weather and sporadic gusty winds led to multiple fires and extreme fire danger throughout the summer months. Most intense among them was the 26,348-acre Greenwood Fire on the Superior National Forest, which required additional effort to minimize and prevent future ecological problems.

The Burned Area Emergency Response assessment team was activated to assess the area and provide key findings to land managers. The goal is to protect public health and safety, federal property and critical natural or cultural resources from further damage after the fire is out.

A BAER team typically includes physical scientists, archeologists, biologists, engineers and geographic information system specialists from across the Forest Service. The information it collects is shared within the agency and with other emergency response agencies to help affected communities and landowners recover from wildfires.

Three main phases of BAER include:

  • Rapid assessment (usually 7 to 10 days)
  • Implementation of tasks identified in the assessment
  • Monitoring

FS employees testing the soil
USDA Forest Service soil scientists and biologists evaluating soil properties after Greenwood Fire, 2021. USDA photo by Laurie Gawin.

A rapid assessment evaluates the state of the area’s critical values – the risk probability of damage and magnitude of damaging effects to these values. In the Greenwood Fire, critical values included: homes, cabins and their occupants; ecosystem and habitat health and function; timber stands used for federal revenue; and heritage artifacts and cultural sites.

Values and threats were identified for all affected ownerships in and adjacent to the fire’s perimeter. However, the BAER team only recommends emergency treatments on National Forest System lands, based on Forest Service policy.

Key assessment findings and recommendations from the Greenwood Fire BAER Team included the following:

  1. Hazardous conditions, such as fire weakened trees, remain a concern, specifically in the McDougal Lake Campground and along some forest roads and recreational trails. For public safety reasons, administrative closures are in place for these areas and other access points to the burned area since the BAER team completed its assessment in mid-October.
  2. Sections of the fire line along the northeast perimeter of the fire, near Pitcha Lake, occur in areas vulnerable to invasion from adjacent, noxious weed populations. Forest staff will conduct surveys next summer to determine the risk of further weed expansion into the area, as well as the need for active response measures.
  3. Despite heavy losses of vegetation in the fire perimeter, effects the soil resources ranged from unburned to low soil burn severity. Visually, fire effects are most prominent in areas with moderate to high soil burn severity. However, the assessment determined that the remaining organic matter and fine roots near the soil surface, the largely unchanged soil structure and water infiltration, and the presence of understory regrowth just weeks after the fire all indicate that the forest will recover naturally with time.
  4. The landscape’s predominantly flat to rolling rocky terrain minimizes the risk of erosion and runoff. Also, the area’s number of wetlands and open water substantially helps against potential future damaging storms, as the landscape recovers naturally.

Forest after a fire
Mosaic of moderate and high soil burn severity in a mature red pine stand after the Greenwood Fire. USDA photo by Laurie Gawin.

Recommended responses to threats identified in the BAER assessment of the Greenwood Fire are ongoing and both implementation and effectiveness monitoring of those treatments will occur before the BAER process is completed.

While fires can threaten or damage homes and other property, wildland fire has an integral and historical role for maintaining healthy, forested landscapes across northern Minnesota. Since time immemorial, fire-dependent ecosystems have evolved with repeated, sometimes frequent or intense fire disturbance. Restoring that natural cycle to the landscape is even more critical as we continue to experience the effects of climate change.