ISABELLA, MINN. – Authorities offered a first look Wednesday at the stark, charred landscape left behind by northern Minnesota's Greenwood fire, a 41-square-mile wildfire that continues ravaging a large swath of the Superior National Forest after nearly four weeks.
Vast stands of red and white pines along county Hwy. 2 were scorched but still rooted in a blackened carpet, needles stripped bare or burnt to a deep orange. A nearly century-old section of trees near the Jackpot Trail endured the worst of the Aug. 23 eruption, when drought, heat and roaring wind whipped up thundering flames that reached 75 feet high and doubled the fire's footprint in a matter of days, destroying 14 cabins and homes.
"That was one of the most significant fire days I've seen in my career here in Minnesota," said Patrick Johnson, a fire behavior analyst.
Johnson was among several Forest Service and fire management officials who spoke to media Wednesday, the first such tour into one of the worst scorched areas in the fire.
So far, authorities dispatched hundreds of firefighters to the area to contain the rapidly shifting wildfire, just 49% contained.
The patchwork of wildfires in northern Minnesota comes as massive fires in the drought-stricken Western states, including large stretches of California, Oregon and Washington, have taxed fire crews and resources nationwide.
The Lake County fire, which has rung up about $15 million in firefighting costs, is half contained, authorities said. Several inches of rain, cool air and higher humidity are aiding fire crews during a season of extreme and historic drought.
Many evacuated residents and cabin dwellers have been allowed back to their properties in recent days, with the exception of the hard hit McDougal Lake area, where many properties were destroyed.
On Monday, Minnesota's U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith joined Gov. Tim Walz for a briefing at a fire command center in Isabella.
"Minnesotans are feeling a cautious sense of relief as residents are returning to their homes and the fires lose intensity," Walz said. "But we have more difficult weeks ahead of us, and it's important for Minnesotans to continue to follow fire safety restrictions."
"As the wildfires in northern Minnesota continue, it's more important than ever that we ensure affected communities have the resources they need," Klobuchar said.
Klobuchar and Smith have sent a letter to the U.S. Forest Service requesting the agency work closely with state and local partners on a coordinated response to the wildfires and deploy equipment and personnel to northern Minnesota as necessary.
Walz has authorized the state National Guard to assist the wildfire response in Minnesota and Washington State.
Incident commander Mike Almas said the swirling fire created a mosaic pattern in the thick forest, with some land pristine and untouched, some lightly burned and other swaths torched to a black crisp. Crews in recent days have been trudging through peat moss, where heat is deeply buried underground.
Peat moss poses an unusual challenge for fire crews, with the dead plants serving as dense fuel for fire. Instead of sending flames into the sky, peat moss fire burns down, smoldering deep in the soil.
"They do a lot of cold trailing along the fire's edge," Almas said of a firefighting tactic that involves removing gloves to feel for warmth, digging into the soil and extinguishing the flames.
Every inch of the fire's perimeter must be free of heat before the fire is considered contained, he said, and the drought has complicated already unusual firefighting conditions.
"Instead of living on the surface, the fire is 2 to 3 feet down," said Almas, who leads the current team managing the fire, based in Idaho.
Officials are not expecting the fire to grow much, as favorable weather moves into the area for the next couple of weeks. But 5 to 10 inches of rain or snow is needed to put it out, said Rick Davis, the fire team's meteorologist.
Cooler weather led to the Superior National Forest loosening fire restrictions for most of its fee-required campgrounds Thursday, allowing campfires in designated grates. (Some of its campgrounds remain closed.)
The two fires burning in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness have remained largely unchanged for days, and authorities aren't expecting them to grow.
Most of the pines still standing in sections of forest that burned significantly will not survive, destined to become habitat for woodpeckers, Johnson said.
These areas will stay closed to visitors for months because of the danger of stump holes and falling trees. With roots weakened, the trees can fall with little notice and nearly silently. Even once open, visitors should be mindful of the risks involved with hunting or hiking through a recently burned forest, Almas said.
Fire officials toured another burned area off state Hwy. 1 to compare a managed section of forest with an area where trees and brush grew wild and unchecked.
A prescribed burn in 2019 made the managed area an ideal place to start a new fire in late August, blocking the advance of the Greenwood blaze by offering it nowhere to go. With less to burn, such as smaller trees and underbrush, few trees died, unlike the Jackpot Trail section where smaller balsam firs torched quickly, spreading fire.
Johnson said, however, that surviving pines throughout the wilderness area will be a good seed source for future trees.
"A lot of this forest came from fire, and it's going to be the origin of the next forest that replaces it," he said.