May 2014 chipper day in Ely, MN

Topic: Communications / Outreach Learning networks Type: Success Story / Lessons Learned

Fire Adapted Communities: On the Front Lines in Ely, Minnesota

Authors: Gloria Erickson

Each community in every region has its own relationship to wildfire risks. There are common themes – wildfire season, fuel loading, preparedness plans, etc. – but local conditions make for local needs, challenges, and opportunities.

In Minnesota, even with 11,842 lakes over 10 acres in size, wildfire is still a threat. One area of the state that can be described as being on the “frontlines” of local wildfire risk is Ely, Minnesota. The community is within hiking distance of the Canadian border and a little over a 4-hour drive north of the Twin Cities.  With a population of about 3,400, Ely is in the middle of a complex landscape. The region is the “Iron Range” with past and present iron ore mining activities. The region is also home to forests that have regrown from the heyday of railroad logging and Paul Bunyan more than 100 years ago. Perhaps most significantly, Ely provides a gateway to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Ely draws residents and visitors from all over the world. Thousands of people live in Ely or have homes on the back roads that lead into the forests around town. Thousands more visit Ely for a few days, weeks, or months each year.

Ely is on the frontlines of wildfire risk for many reasons. The area has beautiful forests, but the forests are thick with balsam fir which burns like paper when green and is almost as bad as a box of matches when it is dead and dry. The balsam fir and other understory growth in the forests around Ely can act as ladder fuels and increases the risk of destructive crown fires. (Ely’s wildfire risk is depicted in this Minnesota Public Radio slideshow of the May 2012 Highway 1 wildfire.)

To effectively address fire adaptation in the Ely area requires the participation of community leaders, public and private land managers, resort owners, residents, property owners, visitors and all those that care about the importance of resource-based economies. The FAC work in Ely includes partnering with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Firewise Program they administer; close collaboration with the Superior National Forest as a significant land management agency in the region; project development with the natural resource program at Vermilion Community College located right in town; and many other partners like the local Fire Department, townships, emergency services and property owners.

This summer, these partners were able to come together through the coordination of our FAC Hub to implement a “chipper day” fuels reduction project in a neighborhood on the south side of town. This event has “sparked” the interest of more neighborhoods, residents and lake associations. Additional chipper day events are being planned and local leadership is developing!

The work in Ely has benefitted from the FAC Network in so many ways – it has been like getting a jump start!  Seeing what other groups have done has helped the work in Ely by providing everything from helpful advice and examples to actual templates for the flyers and postcards that were used to raise awareness of the chipper day. The FAC Network friends and colleagues are an irreplaceable resource for helping understand what has worked (or not worked!) in other places and making informed decisions about what we want to try and do here.

For Ely, being fire adapted requires balancing recreation needs, resource utilization, and public safety. Not always an easy balance to strike, but it is the right thing to do to ensure this generation and all future residents and visitors to the area can continue to enjoy what it has to offer. The FAC Network is a big help!