Perfect conditions have created a fire that has burned intensely and destroyed property in northern Minnesota. Late Monday, officials said that at least 40 structures have been lost. But no injuries were reported.
ALONG THE GUNFLINT TRAIL -- One of the fastest and most damaging wildfires to hit Minnesota in decades has consumed more than 40 buildings on the end of the Gunflint Trail, with structures from sheds and cabins to an outfitter's lodge all burned to the ground.
The Ham Lake fire, which started Saturday at or near a campsite on that lake, grew quickly in drought-parched timber downed in a 1999 wind storm and raced northward almost 10 miles by Monday morning, driven by dry, gusty and erratic winds. The fire stood at more than 25 square miles Monday and was considered only 5 percent contained.
Fire officials said that dozens of properties with an estimated combined value of $38 million are still threatened.
With unusually low humidity and the dead, post-winter undergrowth of the forest not yet protected by the new green of spring, the fire jumped the Gunflint Trial on Sunday and threatened the cabin-dotted Seagull Lake and Saganaga Corridor areas on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Alarmed at the fire's speed Sunday, officials closed the last seven miles of the dead-end Gunflint Trial, which runs north from Grand Marais, and encouraged more than 100 people to leave the area. Only a handful of residents refused to leave their properties unprotected.
Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk said no injuries were reported.
Superior National Forest also imposed a campfire ban Monday and officials acknowledged they wish they had done so earlier, but conditions didn't seem to warrant it until the fire was burning.
"It's always easy to second-guess yourself," said Mark Van Every, the Superior's Kawishiwi District ranger and an information officer on the fire. "With 20/20 hindsight, we wish we had [banned fires earlier]."
More firefighters coming
Van Every added that because no lightning strikes had been detected in the area, officials suspect the fire was human-caused. He said that if investigators determine that a camper or someone else was negligent in starting it, the Forest Service could take steps to hold them financially responsible.
About 200 people were fighting the fire Monday, with more on the way. They were aided by eight bulldozers, several water-dropping planes and helicopters and at least 23 fire engines.
While 40 buildings were lost, officials said more than 50 in the fire's path were spared, apparently because they were protected by outdoor sprinkler systems owners installed after by the 1999 "blow-down" killed millions of trees in the area and increased fire danger for years to come.
Since then, the U.S. Forest Service and local agencies have done prescribed burns, logged areas along the Gunflint Trail and took other steps to protect trail residents from a fire. Those efforts were credited with helping prevent both the Alpine Lake fire in 2005 and the Cavity Lake fire in 2006 from reaching the trail.
But officials said the Ham Lake fire, aided by a kind of perfect storm of conditions conducive to fire growth, defied normal fire behavior in that region, moving northwest at one point instead of northeast, changing directions several times and moving faster than anyone expected. It tore through the trail's populated areas and crossed into Canada before settling down Monday, which brought higher humidity and calmer winds.
"In 27 years on fires all over the place ... this is probably some of the worst fire behavior I've seen," said Mike Aultman, deputy incident commander, who is second-in-command in fighting the fire. "Normally we have good humidity cover this time of year. The fires will settle down at night. This one continued to burn."
Waiting for news in town
Despite Monday's break from the weather, which included rain measuring less than one-tenth of an inch, drier weather was forecast to return today and continue the rest of the week. Officials said Canada, which already has assisted with water-bombing planes, promised to continue to devote resources to the fire on its side of the border.
Property owners from the end of the Gunflint milled anxiously about the fire command center at Gunflint Lodge and later at a briefing at the Cook County Courthouse in Grand Marais.
For John Maloney, of Inver Grove Heights, owner of a cabin on Seagull Lake, the news was good -- a deputy told him his sprinkler system had done its job as the fire raced through, and the 20-year-old cabin was still standing. Maloney said he was thankful that a neighbor -- one of those who refused to leave -- had started his propane-powered sprinkler pump for him, and did the same for other neighbors.
Also saved by the sprinklers, which are designed to cover the area around structures with two inches of water in 24 hours, was a guest cabin built in 1932. "It would have broke my heart to see that go to ashes," Maloney said.
Dave and Cathi Williams got bad news Monday. Their Seagull Outpost Lodge, which they started building in 1987 and which slept 20, apparently was lost. The lodge on the Gunflint Trial was not adjacent to a lake or river and did not have a sprinkler system, Dave Williams said. He said it was insured, but not to its full value.
"This was our retirement," he said. "Our assets just go burned."
Cathi Williams said their children are taking it hard. "They helped build it," she said.