ELY (AP) -- Forestry officials say they are gaining valuable information from the controlled burns conducted over the past two weeks near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Ellen Bogardus-Szymaniak, fuels specialist for the Superior National Forest, said the controlled fires have burned hotter than expected, providing information about how future wildfires in blowdown areas could behave.
Large-scale fires had been predicted in the area along the Minnesota-Ontario border after a storm in July 1999 blew down or snapped millions of trees.
In a normal year, 82 fires consume about 3,500 acres in the BWCA and the surrounding national forest, she said. This year there were 38 fires that burned a total of 110 acres.
"We were lucky," Bogardus-Szymaniak said. "We had some type of weather system every three or four days that threw some moisture down."
She also credited the public for realizing the potential fire risks this summer.
Experts also said there were fewer fires because of campfire restrictions, greater efforts by the U.S. Forest Service and outfitters to educate campers about fire prevention, and heightened awareness among cabin owners.
In addition, fewer people visited some areas of the wilderness.
Two of the most popular wilderness entry points, on Seagull and Saganaga lakes, had 20 to 30 percent fewer users, according to the preliminary figures.
"Our best guess is that visits were down about 8 to 10 percent overall for the season," said Barb Soderberg, wilderness program manager for the Superior Forest.
Bruce Kerfoot, owner of Gunflint Lodge and a spokesman for an association of 22 resorts and outfitters along the Gunflint Trail, said business was down by 10 to 30 percent this past summer for most owners.
The lack of fires gave Minnesota another year and the chance to do more cleanup and prescribed burning, said Jean Bergerson, public affairs officer for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids.
The cleanup has included the clearing and removal of brush and downed timber on state and federal land outside the BWCA. The idea is to remove fuel that might allow any wildfires to spread onto private property, endangering cabins, resorts and people.
But Bogardus-Szymaniak warned that visitors to the BWCA and surrounding areas should continue to be careful.
"Next year the fuel is going to be drier," Bergerson said, "And we don't know what the weather will bring us then."
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