State agencies were scrambling to contain a wildfire that prompted evacuations on the eastern Iron Range on Friday night — the third such blaze this week created by dry conditions and strong winds.
The Twin Cities awakened Saturday morning to the strong smell of the fires hundreds of miles to the north.
The fire Friday night began in the Skibo area, a few miles southeast of Hoyt Lakes, around 3 p.m. Friday and quickly spread, forcing the evacuations of several seasonal cabins.
An assisted-living facility in Hoyt Lakes housing about 20 residents was also evacuated as a precaution, according to U.S. Forest Service officials.
Eight to 10 separate small fires strung out along remote railroad tracks in Skibo were drawn together by gusty northwest winds, said Forest Service spokesman Tim Engrav. Thick haze also hung over the area from massive Canadian wildfires.
“The forecast came true. It was very dry, low humidity, high temperatures and high winds,” he said. “That combination pushed most of those fires together.”
Local ground crews, along with fire officials from Montana and Oregon, fought the blaze with heavy assistance from aircrafts. But as wind speeds picked up, visibility worsened for pilots and they had to pull back.
By Friday night, the fire spanned more than 100 acres and continued growing. Engrav anticipated it would become a multiday effort for firefighters attempting to mop up the flames.
Crews planned to remain working overnight, holding firm in areas closest to communities. “As far as we know at this point, no structures have been lost,” Engrav said. “We’re trying to make sure that residents can stay calm tonight and [know] that they’re safe.”
Meanwhile, Gov. Mark Dayton consigned two National Guard helicopters to assist in containment efforts of a wildfire that has ravaged more than 350 acres of the Paul Bunyan State Forest, about 25 miles south of Bemidji. And earlier this week, another blaze charred about 96 acres near Staples and into Lyons State Forest.
Much of the northwestern portion of the state was under “red flag” conditions Friday, a designation handed out by the National Weather Service to indicate high fire risk.
The fire-friendly temperatures and humidity are projected to hold on through the weekend, according to the National Weather Service, with rain possible Monday in that part of the state.
Such dry conditions are starting to strain the state’s ability to respond to these sort of events. “We are pretty close to tapped out,” said Ron Sanow, spokesman for the Minnesota Incident Command System.
Ben Farniok, a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune, contributed to this report.