Gunflint Trail fire likely to expand

  • Article by: LARRY OAKES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 9, 2007 - 1:47 PM

Some residents got a chance Tuesday to survey the damage to their property. Others found the fire had spared them.

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ALONG THE GUNFLINT TRAIL -- Fire officals said today they expect another hectic day trying to contain the Ham Lake wildfire, due to high temperatures and very low humidity.

The temperature was expected to reach 80 degrees again today, and humidity was expected to dip back down to 20 percent. Winds, however, were expected to be light, from a southerly direction.

Similar conditions yesterday caused the fire to expand moderately, despite constant efforts of water-bombing aircraft to hold it back. The fire, which began Saturday, has consumed about 40 structures and forced the evacuation of the last seven miles of the Gunflint Trail.

Jan Sivertson built her Gunflint Trail cabin in 1988.

She tucked it lovingly into a grove of jack pine on a rock bluff overlooking the sky-blue waters of Seagull Lake -- the island-dotted epitome of a sparkling northern Minnesota lake pictured in old Hamm's Beer ads.

"It was a nice place to escape, to be a hermit," said Sivertson, who lives in Grand Marais and runs an art gallery there. "There are a lot of good memories."

Her cabin was one of the 40 structures consumed by the Ham Lake fire.

Although the fire grew moderately Tuesday, officials allowed a few owners to visit their properties briefly with an escort.

Most, including Sivertson, already knew the fate of their cabins, homes or lodges. The Cook County Sheriff's Office had taken an inventory of properties and maintains a hot line -- 1-218-387-3093 -- for owners.

Sivertson clung to her memories and what optimism she could muster Tuesday as she surveyed the wreckage: Ashes covered protruding concrete foundation piers that suddenly supported nothing. Glass had melted into surreal shapes and the charred skin of the steel roof that must have ridden the collapsing structure to the ground lay buckled and abused now, like trash in a landfill.

"Oh my God," she said softly as she walked carefully amid blackened tree trunks. "Look, that's the microwave. That's the electrical panel. There's the bathtub."

This was the fire many people have feared since the 1999 blow-down that turned millions of trees in and near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness into a tangle of giant matchsticks. This was a first look at the devastation that so many feared, and which was just now beginning to sink in.

"I feel like I'm in a movie, like it's not quite real," Sivertson said.

Fire official Mike Martin said Tuesday's weather -- 80 degrees with 20 percent humidity -- presented "critical thresholds" for more fire growth, and those conditions were expected to continue today.

Martin said one additional structure -- an outbuilding -- burned Tuesday.

Officials didn't release a new estimate of the fire's size. On Monday, they said the fire had consumed about 16,000 acres or 25 square miles.

Still standing

Dick and Kris Gillespie of Minneapolis were at their new cabin on Saganaga Lake when the evacuation order came Sunday. They ended up in the Best Western in Grand Marais.

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