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Editorial: Symposium ignores Pagami facts will lessons ever be learned?

Ely Echo - Staff Photo - Create Article

On April 13, at a symposium titled Pagami Creek Fire: Lessons Learned, the Forest Service failed to acknowledge its mistakes in managing Minnesota’s largest wildfire in nearly a century.

The day-long symposium at Minnesota North Vermilion opened with a speech by Nick Petrack, West Zone Fire Management Officer with the Forest Service.

“The theme of the symposium is lessons learned. There is so much we still take out of the lessons learned,” said Petrack. “Do we always make the perfect decision? Absolutely not. But it’s very important to learn from our decisions, utilize science, and utilize past experiences to try and prevent things from happening.”

Petrack then talked about the timeline, progression map, and management of the fire by the Forest Service for roughly 30 minutes.

After Petrack, a handful of other speakers who are leaders in their respective fields filled the remaining six hours of the symposium.

What wasn’t mentioned by any speaker throughout the day, or by Petrack, was how the Forest Service was at least partially responsible for the fire getting out of control in the first place.

Here is a little background about the Pagami Creek Fire for those who may not know the timeline, or at least, the complete timeline.

The fire started on August 18, 2011. The Forest Service watched the fire without intervention until it reached 130 acres on August 26.

Then the Forest Service decided to use several hundred gallons of napalm-like gasoline material “to really get it going.”

The number was somewhere between 1,700 and 1,900 gallons of the gasoline substance.

At the time, there were drought conditions in Ely, and the north woods can be very windy that time of year, so it is unknown whether the fire would have grown to the size it did without the gasoline. The Forest Service should have been aware of the drought and potentially windy conditions.

When the fire reached 1,750 acres after dousing it with gasoline, several Forest Service representatives noted, “We were putting quite a plume up in the air.”

The fire was now a political issue, as smoke was filling the lungs of people from Chicago all the way to the Ukraine.

The Forest Service later claimed that firefighters tried to keep the fire under control from the day it started.

Only when the Echo questioned Forest Service officials after the blaze did the decision-makers admit to adding fuel to the fire. Since then, the fact has been covered up and seems to have been forgotten entirely.

Also failed to be mentioned in the symposium was how six Forest Service employees almost burned alive in the fire due to planning mistakes by the decision makers.

A report titled “Pagami Creek Fire Entrapments - Facilitated Learning Analysis” tells how critical mistakes which could have been prevented nearly took the lives of these six employees.

At the end of the day, Petrack was asked why the Forest Service decided to put 1,700 gallons of gasoline on the fire.

“I’m not going to comment on the exact, what was it 17,000 of jellied gas?” said Petrack. “That is a management decision, and they are using fire as a tool to bring it down to a natural barrier.”

Someone else then commented, “It seems like the decisions leading up to the Pagami blowup were not addressed, and instead dismissed as ‘Armchair quarterbacking,’ I think this audience would appreciate more of the specifics.”

Petrack responded with everything but the specifics.

“Part of my speech today was that every decision we do takes a lot of people, a lot of effort, and the number one priority is trying to do what’s right,” Petrack said. “We don’t just launch a helicopter and go there and say we’re going to put 18,000 gallons of jelly gas (on the fire).”

To be fair to Petrack, the Pagami Creek Fire was well before his time as an officer.

However, it must be asked, why, in an entire day-long symposium about the Pagami Creek Fire targeted at college students going into forestry and natural resource careers, there wasn’t a single mention of the gasoline and lives the Forest Service endangered until directly asked.

When you learn a lesson, you gain knowledge from the process of conducting a project.

This includes positives and negatives. The idea is to repeat the positive aspects in the future and not the negative ones.

How can we not repeat the negatives of the Pagami Creek Fire if the Forest Service refuses to acknowledge and teach about their mistake of dousing the fire with 1,700 gallons of gasoline?

By not acknowledging the mistakes it made with the Pagami Creek Fire and not teaching it to college students who may be managing fire in the future, the Forest Service opened the door for more mistakes.

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