How a little campground survived the Greenwood Fire
One year after the Lake County wildfire, the scorched Superior National Forest, cabin owners and McDougal Lake Campground all show resilience.
LAKE COUNTY — You can see for miles now where giant white pines and spruce trees once blocked the view, see across North McDougal Lake and across acres of the Superior National Forest blackened last summer by the Greenwood Fire.
The fire burned so many of the trees in its path that it opened up much of the forest in this area, creating views where none existed before.
But something happened here that’s hard to explain. As the fire burned toward the U.S. Forest Service campground on the north shore of North McDougal Lake, it stopped.
Call it the fickle hand of fate. Call it divine intervention. Maybe it was just a switch in wind direction. The fire burned right up to the campground, obliterating a hiking trail, but only did minor damage to the camping area itself. Nineteen of the campground’s 21 sites are open for business this summer, and most are still shaded by big conifer and aspen trees.
“A couple of us who have pretty good experience with fire went up there to look at what happened and just scratched our heads. All we can say is that it was just luck,” said Ellen Bogardus-Szymaniak, a veteran wildfire behavior expert for the Superior National Forest now serving as the forest’s Tofte District ranger.
The fire started Aug. 15 about 40 miles north of Two Harbors and 10 miles west of Isabella. It burned for weeks. But on Aug. 24, driven by strong winds, it did most of its damage, running across the McDougal Lakes area, destroying 14 homes and cabins and 57 outbuildings. There were no firefighting personnel on hand that day to save the campground.
“Everyone was more concerned that day trying to save the structures, people’s cabins and homes,” Bogardus-Szymaniak noted. Near the campground, “we pulled back firefighters for safety reasons.”
One outhouse, a couple wooden stairways and some wooden retaining walls were damaged by fire, but none of the wooden picnic tables were lost.
In the spring, a youth conservation corps team helped remove dead trees that might pose a danger to campers and cleared roads of any downed logs, with most of the campground cleared for Memorial Day weekend. Campers are now asked to stay on trails and roads, and out of the burned woods where many dead, but still standing trees remain ready to fall.
Jonathan Benson, assistant district ranger for recreation and wilderness on the Gunflint and Tofte districts of the Superior National Forest, said it appears that even the minimal open areas within the campground, like a boat landing and trailer parking area and the narrow roads within the campground, may have helped save the sites.
“You get those compacted soils inside the campground area, and the roads, the parking areas, and it can slow the fire down,” Benson noted.
Already, new green emerges
The scope of the Greenwood Fire unfolds when driving on the two-rut forest logging roads that criss-cross the area. Miles and miles of blackened trees — many still standing, others down in heaps — create an eerie landscape, contrasted with trees that have shed their burned bark and now shine a ghostly white. In some cases, the fire burned the duff and soil, exposing now white rocks that hadn't seen daylight in years.
But there are patches of standing, green trees that somehow were missed by the fire. Like the campground, some blotches of forest within the scorched area remain lush and green, offering hope and seeds for the renewed forest to come. And even in the burned areas, aspen shoots have already sprouted from old root systems, with some already 3 feet high, the beginnings of a new forest on the way.
In other, nearby areas that were either burned on purpose or logged to reduce the fire threat, the Forest Service will either plant trees next spring or let the forest bounce back naturally. Aspen, birch and jackpine, for example, often thrive after a fire without any intervention from people, as do blueberries, mushrooms, moose and woodpeckers. (There's been a delay in burning many piles of downed trees stacked in the area due to a national Forest Service order against intentional fires, but those piles should be burned by this winter.)
“Some areas that burned the hardest will need to be replanted, and we’re doing those assessments right now for planting next spring,” Bogardus-Szymaniak said. “But the fire didn’t burn black over the entire area. It’s a mosaic. And there are plenty of seed trees remaining across much of the burned area to regenerate the forest."
Several researchers are working inside the burned areas to study the impacts of the fire on flora and fauna, to measure the climate change impacts on the blaze and more. Burned areas of this size are some of the few places in Minnesota where moose still thrive.
In May, the Nature Conservancy planted nearly 129,000 seedlings across more than 300 acres of county, state and Forest Service land that had been charred by the Greenwood Fire. Tree species were selected that are not just native to the area, but that are the most likely to continue to thrive even as climate change increasingly impacts the Northland in coming decades.
“We planted mostly conifers, but used some varieties that maybe are from seed sources 100 miles or so south of that location, so they might be more able to adapt to the changing climate conditions that are happening,” said Chris Dunham, resilience forestry manager for the Nature Conservancy in Minnesota.
The planting crew had to cut their way into some areas after the fire burned underneath standing dead trees, leaving them ready to tip over in the slightest wind. Now, crews will go back in coming years to make sure the seedlings have space to grow and are protected, if need be, from deer and encroaching weeds or aspen trees.
Driveways to nothing
Across North McDougal Lake from the campground, and on Middle McDougal Lake, most of the burned trees at what had been cabin and home sites have fallen or been felled by chainsaws or loggers. A once-thick forest is now open, exposing driveways that lead to nothing but empty gravel spaces or concrete foundations where homes, cabins and garages once stood.
In some cases, landowners have already started the reconstruction process. Some others have brought campers to their empty lots to use until they decide if or when to rebuild.
Sandy Signorelli, of Duluth, lost her modest cabin on Middle McDougal Lake that had been in the family for 25 years. It will be up to her daughter, Lara, to decide how far to go in rebuilding. But that’s the plan, at least for now.
Signorelli said some of her neighbors who lost cabins on the McDougal lakes likely won’t rebuild and won’t even come back. But others are staying.
“The fire really hopped around up there. We had neighbors who didn’t really lose a thing while right next door, everything burned. … Unfortunately, we were one of those that got hit hard,” said Signorelli, 77. “It burned so hot that it melted three canoes and two kayaks.”
Their property has been cleared of burned debris and trees. Insurance already has paid to reforest the lot with $8,000 worth of cedars and maples.
“We’ve been watering them with soaker hoses,” Signorelli said, noting electricity has been restored to the lot and the water pump works, as does the septic system.
The family has brought in a 27-foot camper to stay in at the lake now and have plans to build a combination cabin/garage on the concrete slab that still sits where their garage burned. A new gazebo will go up in September. Lara Signorelli is still itemizing all the items lost in the fire for the insurance company.
“I still enjoy going up there. It looks different, of course. … Out on the islands we look at, it's mostly black. But you can already see green coming up, ferns and whatnot,” Sandy Signorelli said. “And now we have a project. … Before the fire, when we’d go up there, everything was done. So we’d just sit around. Well, that can get boring. … Now we have something to work on.”
All about the drought
Forest conditions certainly add to wildfire dangers, and parts of the Greenwood Fire area that burned had been hit hard by spruce budworm, an insect that leaves spruce and balsam trees dead and drying, perfect tinder for fires that do start to burn faster and hotter.
In 2021, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources forest insect experts found 384,000 acres had been hit by the budworm, the most in 26 years. Most of that damage was in Lake and Cook counties, with the Greenwood Fire area in the heart of the insect outbreak that turns green pine needles orange as they kill the tree.
But by far the biggest factor in the Greenwood Fire, and dozens of others across the Northland in 2021, was the region’s stifling drought. While drought conditions varied across the Northland — with some areas lucky enough to get an occasional rainstorm and other areas not so lucky — parts of the region saw the driest summer since the Dust Bowl era. The Greenwood Fire occurred in an area categorized as extreme drought.
That left swamps, creeks and even rivers nearly dry, and it left much of the forest flora dry enough to burn. All it took was a lightning strike Aug. 15, without much rain falling, and the fire spread quickly. Throw in a few windy days with low humidity levels and the fire raged across the landscape, burning across nearly 27,000 acres, or about 42 square miles.
The Greenwood Fire prompted the evacuation of nearly 300 homes and cabins and closed some roads for weeks. And, along with some other threatening fires on both sides of the Minnesota/Ontario border, the dangerous conditions pushed the Forest Service to close the entire Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for the first time since the 1970s.
The Greenwood Fire was the most destructive in Minnesota since 2007, when the Ham Lake Fire burned across 75,000 acres and took out 140 structures. For some cabin owners in the Greenwood Fire path, it was the second time they had been evacuated in the past decade. In fall 2001, many were forced to flee the path of the Pagami Creek Fire that burned more than 92,000 acres, but which remained almost entirely within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and away from any development.
More than 400 firefighters were called to help contain the Greenwood Fire, along with water-dropping aircraft and dozens of fire engine crews, many from volunteer fire departments across the Northland. It was those crews, assigned to specific structures, that are credited with saving several cabins and homes in the area.
By Sept. 20, more than a month after it began, the Greenwood Fire was at 80% containment and finally considered under control.
McDougal open for camping
The U.S. Forest Service campground on North McDougal Lake, on Forest Road 106 just off Minnesota Highway 1 west of Isabella, has 21 campsites, 19 of which remain open after the Greenwood Fire.
The sites are open this year on a first-come, first-served basis because it was unclear at first how much of the campground might not be ready after the fire. Simply pick out your site and then pay your fee at the self-service kiosk. The campground usually is part of the federal lands reservation system through recreation.gov . The fee is $15 per night.
“When the (camping) season started this spring we really didn’t know yet how much of the campground was going to be impacted by the fire,” Benson said. “We'll have it back in the ( recreation.gov ) system next year, likely with a higher percentage of the sites reservable.”
This summer, the campground has been mostly empty, even on weekends.
Visitors are recommended to stay on campground roads and sites as fire-weakened trees may pose hazards in the surrounding forest area.
It’s one of dozens of similar campgrounds on the Superior National Forest with picnic tables and fire pits at each site, drinking water available and vault toilets. At McDougal Lake, sites are pull-in or back-in and not specifically designed for big RVs, although most can accommodate a moderately sized vehicle. Some sites are better suited for small vehicles and tents.
The boat landing at the campground is open, but the hiking trail remains closed after being obliterated by the fire and downed trees. The 323-acre lake is mostly shallow and known for walleye, bluegill, pike and smallmouth bass.
“We’re hoping to maybe reopen part of the hiking trail and use it as an interpretive opportunity to talk about fire and its impacts, good and bad,” Benson said.
For more information, call the Tofte Ranger District at 218-663-8060.