SNOWBANK LAKE, MINN. - Crews reported the first signs of success Saturday in beating back the blaze that over the past month has torched some of the most popular parts of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Incident commander Doug Turman said crews have about 8 percent of the 146-square-mile blaze under control, and have stopped the spread at its northwest corner. They hoped to make similar progress by the end of Saturday on the south edge of the blaze, where 36 homes and cabins are threatened.
Firefighters were aided Saturday by partial cloud cover and cooler weather. "These are bonus days," Turman said. "We can get a lot done. Every day is a little better." But there was also a shift in the wind, which began blowing from the south and pushing smoke and worry north to the cabin and resort owners on the northwest edge of the BWCA near Snowbank Lake. Phones started ringing in the morning, spreading the word that a community meeting would be held Sunday to talk about evacuation plans -- should it come to that.
Julie Schmidt, co-owner of Smitty's Lodge, said she has a suitcase packed with pajamas, and she's thinking about storing financial documents in the car. But other than that, "what do you need?" she asked, looking around at the knotty-pine lodge she's owned for 19 years. "I have two totes of photographs that I might grab if I have time, but I wouldn't risk my life for them."
Up the road at Kawishiwi Lodge, owner Frank Udovich said the fire, which started just a few miles from his place, has shut down his canoe-outfitting business. But he made up for it by kitting out 100 elite firefighters, sending them off with canoes and packs for 14-day stints inside the wilderness.
For two days, he watched giant water-scooping aircraft rumble over the trees after they filled their bellies from Snowbank Lake. "It's impressive," he said of the operation. "I'm not as concerned as I was. They will take care of it."
But he is worried about the impact on his business. The fire has blackened only about 9 percent of the 1.1 million-acre wilderness -- but it was the 9 percent that's closest to him. Few will want to spend their vacations among blackened stumps, he said.
Still, "I'm a realist," he said. The BWCA is becoming in an old forest that needs to regenerate, he said, adding, "You have two options. You can log it or burn it."
Turman, who came from Montana to manage the fire operation, said the plan is to stop the fire in ever-expanding sections along the northern and southern edges.
Firefighters, assisted by the water-scooping aircraft, are slowly adding to the areas officially declared contained. They drag thousands of feet of hose into the woods, supplied with water trucks to douse hot spots. Bulldozers dig trenches where they can. Where they can't, firefighters carry equipment in by canoes and camp at authorized sites.
Turman has ordered up four more elite firefighting crews from around the nation to help contain the fire. With those additional 80 firefighters, the total effort will swell to close to 600 people by early this week.
He said that containment efforts on both the north and south sides of the fire's perimeter will move eastward, eventually pinching the fire off altogether when they meet.
Even with favorable weather and a more subdued smoldering, it could take a couple of months to fully extinguish the blaze, Turman said. But fire officials have not relaxed evacuation orders in the area around the sprawling fire. A separate fire crew stationed in Grand Marais is making preparations in case the fire makes an unexpected run to the east.
"We'll see what happens," Turman said.