The Ham Lake Fire

Cary J. Griffith, author of “Gunflint Burning,” on one of the largest wildfires in U.S. history.

Gunflint Burning Book

Most of this country’s largest forest fires have started as a result of a lightning strike, but Minnesota’s Ham Lake fire (2007) is an exception. The Ham Lake fire was started by accident, by the late Stephen Posniak, on the retiree’s last day of his last trip to the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area, a wilderness area of more than a million acres within the Superior National Forest in the northeastern part of the state.

In the book “Gunflint Burning: Fire in the Boundary Waters” (University of Minnesota Press), Rosemount, Minnesota-based author Cary J. Griffith provides a comprehensive account of the events surrounding the Ham Lake fire, a running crown fire that burned 144 structures and did an estimated $100 million in damage. Fortunately, no lives were lost during the fire, though the man responsible for striking the fateful match would eventually become a victim, seemingly unwilling to face the daunting and potentially devastating legal and financial consequences that followed in the wake of the blaze.

In the following Failure Interview, Griffith—a past winner of both a Minnesota Book Award and a Midwest Book Award—explains how the Ham Lake fire started, why he chose to write a full-length book about it, and why the story has such a sad, tragic ending.

What inspired you to write “Gunflint Burning”?

I did research to find out how big the Ham Lake Fire was and in terms of the number of acres burned it was #12 on the historical list. At the time it happened it was the largest forest fire in almost a century. The firefighting costs alone were $11 million.

In doing more research I discovered that modern wildfire fighting is different from firefighting in the past. Before the burning of Windigo Lodge, which happened in the spring of 1991, fires were fought differently in Minnesota—and around the country. Now they are much more coordinated, and we’ve gotten a lot better at fighting fires. And before the Windigo Lodge fire, which killed seven people, there were no volunteer fire departments in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. It’s one of those wilderness areas where you can’t post any signage, planes can’t fly over, there are no cell towers, and it’s big, like a million acres if you include southern Ontario. But after the Windigo Lodge fire they developed volunteer fire departments, which played a key role.

Notably, the man who created the volunteer fire department was George Carlson and he also created a new fire mitigation system. There are a lot of lakes and rivers up there and the cabins are usually on those lakes so they have huge water sources available to them. Carlson thought they should set up what he called fire mitigation systems, which really were like 20 sprinklers spread around a property. So if you saw a fire you could turn them on with a gas-powered pump. If they run for 24 hours they drop about 100,000 gallons on a property. It’s equivalent to a two-inch rainfall.

The theory was that you could protect your structures even as an intense fire approached. That theory was tested in the Ham Lake fire. It was early in the season so a lot of the fire mitigation systems weren’t turned on, but of the 65 that were operational, 64 of them survived the fire. Finally, one of the big reasons I did the book is because of George Posniak, who was responsible for starting the fire. Of the aforementioned top 12 fires, almost all of them were started by lightning. The only one that was started by a campfire was the Ham Lake fire—and what happened to Posniak in the wake of the fire was tragic.

How did the Ham Lake fire start?

It was May 5, 2007, two days into Stephen George Posniak’s twenty-seventh trip to the Boundary Waters Wilderness Canoe Area. Posniak was 63 years old, a retired federal employee who would come every year on the weekend before opening day of fishing season in Minnesota, thinking he would have the woods to himself. He would always go in solo, just for a handful of days.

This particular year he went into the Boundary Waters on the third of May, and he was there the night of the third and night of the fourth. He was a newspaper hound and he had this tradition where he would burn all of his paper trash before he left the Boundary Waters. It was against regulations but it was his tradition. So he burned all his paper trash, as usual, and he thought the fire was out mid-morning on the fifth of May. But when he started breaking down his tent an ember was lifted out of the fire and dropped, and the fire just took off. He tried really hard to put out the fire but within an hour it became a running crown fire, which is one of the most intense fires. It runs from treetop to treetop—from crown to crown.

Tell me about the response to the Ham Lake fire.

The response was immediate. The Tuscarora Lodge was a little over a mile away but as soon as someone saw smoke they called it in to the fire service—the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. They dispatched an air group which included two Super Scoopers—planes that have about 1,000 gallons of fire retardant in them. They were on the fire within an hour and half of it starting. The planes built an arc with retardant and then the Super Scoopers would fly down low on the lakes, open their bellies, and pull in about 1,000 gallons of water. Then they would close it back up and dump that water on the fire.

They painted an arc around Tuscaroro that saved everything but one small building. That said, it was incredibly dry and the winds were very high so things got out of hand. The winds played a significant role because they were so strong and didn’t die down at night.

How were firefighters able to get the blaze under control?

It took 13 days to extinguish the fire. On the first day of the fire it went west-northwest. And everybody was happy of that because the previous fall there had been a huge fire called the Cavity Lake fire and once it hit the remnants of that fire there wouldn’t be anything left to burn and it would have burned itself out. But the winds shifted from the south and it pushed a wider area straight up the populated end of the Gunflint Trail, where there are a lot of cabins and resorts.

The next day it tripled in size and it just kept doubling and tripling in size and it went into Canada and became an international incident. They used just about every firefighting trick in the book. They did burnouts, they put in fire lines…. In the beginning it was just the two Super Scoopers but in the end they had Sikorsky helicopters—all kinds of air resources on the fire.

Finally, after six or seven days they got a break and got a little rain. Once the weather started to moderate a little bit they got their hands around it and then it was a matter of beating it back until they could finally extinguish it.

What happened to Stephen Posniak in the aftermath of the fire?

That’s the tale of woe and the tragic part. At first, Posniak told authorities that he ‘just happened upon the fire.’ It took him about 12 hours—till the next morning—to fess up and admit he started the blaze. More than a year later, a grand jury out of Minneapolis handed down a three-count indictment, including one felony.

Personally I thought it was too much. He admitted he started the fire; he told them that it was an accident. They were doing their law enforcement thing—crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s—and in Minnesota if you are found guilty of committing a felony and starting a wildfire you can be held personally liable for the damages. You can imagine the guy was looking at a $100 million in damages.

The reality is that a judge doesn’t want to make somebody destitute. If he was found guilty of the felony they probably would have charged him $100 a month for the rest of his life and have gone after the insurance companies to the extent that they could.

But Posniak fought the charges and from October 20 to December 15, 2008, there were a flurry of motions. But on December 15 one of the motions—to dismiss the two most serious counts of the three count indictment—was thrown out. That meant that the trial could move forward.

After Posniak lost the effort to dismiss those two counts he didn’t have the stomach to go forward with the trial and he committed suicide the next day. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.