November 28, 2022

Fire Means Flee: Hiker’s Firsthand Account of Isle Royale’s Mt. Franklin Wildfire

Guest Opinion
By Ren Brabenec | Nov. 12, 2022

No one expects a wildfire when backpacking an island, not until smoke is heading your way and park rangers evacuate your campground.

The morning of Aug. 13 found me hiking Isle Royale National Park’s iconic Greenstone Ridge, a much-anticipated adventure my father and I had been planning for over a decade. As we made our way east along the ridge, our noses detected a hint of wood smoke.

Nestled in Lake Superior and all but removed from civilization, Isle Royale might be the last National Park where one would expect to encounter a wildfire. But if there’s anything our species’ interaction with the natural world has taught us, it’s that humans will find a way to leave their mark on nature, often in a terrible way.

Believed to be caused by an illegal campfire, Isle Royale’s Mt. Franklin Fire began on the evening of Aug. 12. Though the island receives fewer visitors than any other National Park in the lower 48, leave it to those who consider themselves too good for the rules to venture to the island, build illegal campfires, and risk the lives of campers and wildlife.

By the morning of Aug. 13, the fire encompassed 11 acres, blocking the island’s main trail in and out of Rock Harbor, the National Park Ranger Station and campground where most park visitors enter and leave the island.

When my father and I first spotted the fire, we were on the wrong side of it. Still miles away from Rock Harbor and high atop the Greenstone Ridge, we were heading east, the fire was heading west, and the thickening smoke blocked our path to safety. Remembering my Boy Scout training of how one should never try to outrun a fire and should instead move perpendicular to it, we made a split-second decision to flee north to Lane Cove Campground. At least we would be off the Greenstone Ridge and down by the lakeshore. Once at the cove, we could swim out into Lake Superior to escape the fire if we had to.

My father and I made it to Lane Cove. We seemed out of the wildfire’s path, so we breathed sighs of relief in the now fresh air. But just when our heart rates returned to normal, National Park Service watercraft arrived in Lane Cove and wildfire response aircraft roared overhead.

Park rangers disembarked into the campground and calmly but quickly informed the two dozen campers that an evacuation was imminent. The only trail in and out of Lane Cove, the one my father and I had been on just moments before, was now closed. We were told the fire might be headed our way and the only way out was by boat.

Laura Partain, a fellow backpacker I met on the island, was with us on the last boat out of Lane Cove. While I helped senior citizens board rescue boats, Laura captured stunning photos of the rescue, the advancing smoke, and the last glimpse of the campground before we sped out of Lane Cove and headed towards a safer area of the island.

Thanks to impeccable mobilization by park rangers, no one was killed or injured in the Mt. Franklin Fire. Dozens of campers were evacuated from numerous campgrounds and trails, two wildland fire crews responded to the fire, and emergency response aircraft dropped approximately 4,000 gallons of water on the blaze.

But those involved in other wildfires have not been so lucky. And beyond the annual human death toll are the millions of acres burned and the devastation of entire ecosystems. Since 2000, an annual average of 70,072 wildfires have burned about seven million acres each year. The average annual acreage burned today is more than double that burned in the 1990s. According to the U.S. Forest Service, nearly 85 percent of wildfires are caused by humans.

Most people think of wildfires as a problem for western states. Isle Royale’s Mt. Franklin Fire is a painful reminder that wildfires can occur anywhere there is flammable material and a human presence.

At the time of this writing, investigators with the National Park Service are still seeking information about the illegal fire and associated camp on the Mt. Franklin Trail Aug. 12-13. Those who have information that could help are encouraged to submit a tip. Anonymous tips are always welcome. Tip lines include: Phone: 888-653-0009. Online: go.nps.gov/SubmitATip. Email: nps_isb@nps.gov

If humans are to be the species that will shape this planet’s future, it’s our responsibility to ensure the planet and all its lifeforms do, indeed, have a future. Every person who spends time in the wilderness shares a part of that responsibility. So when a park ranger says, “No campfires,” please follow the rule. Our enjoyment of nature, and our safety, depend on it.

Ren Brabenec is a freelance writer and wilderness enthusiast.

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