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Moose, berries thrive seven years after northern Minnesota wildfire

Square Lake seven years after the Pagami Creek Fire burned through the area. Peter Passi / Forum News Service

ELY, Minn. — Seven years ago today, a lightning strike about 13 miles east of Ely touched off the Pagami Creek Fire, a blaze that would burn for weeks, leaving 145 square miles of forest charred and denuded. It remains the largest fire northern Minnesota has seen in 80-plus years.

Last week, our family tripped through a portion of the burn area, and even though berry season appeared to be winding down elsewhere in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, plentiful blueberries still were popping amidst the remnants of the fire. We greedily gobbled our way through portages to and from Square Lake and Kawashaschong Lake as we circled through the area, enroute to Malberg, Adams, Boulder and Makwa via the Kawishiwi River.

The stark landscape of the burn remains studded with the skeletal remains of trees, but saplings, wildflowers, berries and bees have swept in to fill the void.

Certain forms of wildlife also are thriving within this regenerative scene.

Mike Schrage, a biologist for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, credits the fire for boosting moose numbers in the area.

He explained that the mature, dense, largely coniferous forest preceding the fire provided less attractive habitat than the area does today.

"Moose density was pretty low," Schrage said.

"Once the fire happened, it removed the overstory and allowed for a lot of brush and deciduous species to come in — aspen, birch, mountain maple, dogwood and hazel and willow and such that moose like to eat. It allowed for that to sprout and grow really well. And blueberries are another thing that takes off with a lot of sunlight," he said.

"Moose responded to that, and we're seeing a lot more moose in some of those areas than we did before the fire," Schrage said.

He noted that other creatures also have benefited. "I think the number of black-backed woodpeckers also has exploded in that area. They do really well with fire-killed trees."

But there are losers as well as winners.

"On the flipside, it's probably not good marten habitat and won't be for many years until the trees come back," Schlage said.

The change that fire brings to the forest landscape is part of a natural ebb and flow, according to Schlage.

"The boreal forest of northeast Minnesota burned on a regular basis historically, and so it's just doing what it has always done," he said.

However, our desire to protect mature forest lands and suppress fire actually disrupts that natural cycle.

"Our intervention in natural fire regimes has changed the way the forest should look in many cases," Schlage said.

Though visually jarring, many of the burnt-out areas now possess a strange, emerging beauty.

"We bring our own biases when we look at fires. We say: 'Oh it looks ugly, and there are no longer the nice big white pine trees to take a nap under when I pull my canoe ashore.' But from a moose standpoint, they think fire is great," Schlage said.