When the Pagami Creek Fire made its record-setting run across 16 miles of the Boundary Waters in September 2011, six wilderness rangers were overrun by the flames. Sent into Lake Three and Hudson and Insula Lakes to help visitors, they ended up deploying their emergency fire shelters on Insula, two of them in the water, and riding out the firestorm.
A gripping new video from the U.S. Forest Service details the fire and the experience, featuring interviews with most of the rangers involved, photos, and maps showing their movements.
The video was produced to help other wildland firefighters understand the experience of deploying their fire shelters. The shelters offer protection from heat, but are limited in what they can do.
“As always, the fire shelter is the last line of defense when facing a fire entrapment, escape is always the highest priority. Fire shelters will not guarantee a firefighter’s survival in an entrapment situation. Firefighters should do everything they can to avoid situations where they need to deploy a fire shelter,” the National Interagency Fire Center states.
In the video, the firefighters explain in great detail how they ended up in the situation, and what it was like when they realized it was time to take cover.
The rangers repeatedly recall frustration with their superiors who put them in the situation where they needed to deploy their shelters. Their view on the ground was much different than back at headquarters, and their recommendations to evacuate the area earlier were ignored.
A chain of mistakes found the crew in a canoe race for their lives, looking for a big enough piece of water to hide from the wall of fire bearing down on them. When they finally made it through the narrow southern part of Insula, they found the fire whipping up 40 to 50 mph winds and three-foot swells, blowing them across the lake.
Four of the group ultimately found refuge on a tiny barren island, while the other two had no choice but to jump in the lake. They were pelted by burning embers as they huddled underneath their shelters. The pair of rangers in the water thought they would drown in the huge waves, or the fire shelter would get blown away. By the time the fire had moved past them, they were hypothermic, shivering uncontrollably.
Two other rangers with the group managed to get farther up Insula before the fire arrived and were rescued by a Forest Service floatplane.
Once the fire had finally passed, the rangers emerged from their shelters rocked by adrenaline. The weather system created by the storm then pounded them with rain and hail.
The group of six reunited on the tiny barren island where four rangers had deployed, and camped there that night. They were flown out the next day.