Gunflint Trail: Fighting fire with a fire

  • Article by: LARRY OAKES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 9, 2007 - 11:27 PM

Firefighters ignited a controlled burn Wednesday in an effort to rob the Ham Lake fire of fuel and steer it away from homes and cabins, where a predicted shift in the wind was expected to push the fire.

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GUNFLINT LAKE, MINN. - Property owners north of Gunflint Lake had a ringside seat Wednesday to a nerve-racking scene: From Gunflint Lodge across the lake they watched transfixed as towers of fire and smoke rose behind the cabins they treasure.

They watched as firefighters did something they admit seems almost counter-intuitive: They burned an area in hopes of saving it from burning worse later.

And though the full results won't be known until a closer inspection today, it appeared Wednesday night to be working. The Ham Lake fire, which already has consumed about 40 structures on the end of the Gunflint Trail, grew some Wednesday, but it may have less of a foothold to spread south toward more cabins, lodges and homes.

The fire stood at almost 35 square miles before Wednesday's growth, which included some movement farther eastward into Canada, officials said.

Several owners were asked to leave their properties Wednesday on Magnetic Lake and the north shore of Gunflint Lake to prepare for the "burnout" that had just been announced to the public: Officials would ignite the forest behind the shoreline.

That action would hopefully take away fuel from the larger fire to slow its spread in the event northerly winds materialize today as forecast.

"I just hope it does what they want it to," Lilean Nicolaison of Grand Marais said as she and other owners watched nervously from Gunflint Lodge. At the same time, Lodge owner Lee Kerfoot was meeting with employees as a precaution, telling them to be prepared to leave if things didn't go well.

At stake for Nicolaison, her husband, Chris, and their grown children, was the log cabin they have spent 20 years building and improving -- all with their own hands.

"It's more than a cabin," she said of the property on Magnetic Lake. "It means family."

Chris Nicolaison and son Eric had spent the morning installing a portable sprinkler system and fire crews added more sprinklers around their property and several others where owners had taken similar precautions. Finally, all were asked to leave and several moved across Gunflint Lake to watch their places' fate unfold.

Amazing sight

In the late afternoon, when the wind finally seemed right and the affected properties had been thoroughly doused with water and retardant from planes, crews on the ground and in helicopters began dropping dollops of flame onto the parched forest.

Within minutes, groves of trees on the ridge above the shoreline were belching giant balls of flame and smoke from hundreds of these flareups converged into a dense black cloud billowing thousands of feet into the air and expanding across an entire quadrant of sky.

"Absolutely amazing," said Lou Reid, of Minnetrista, as he watched the prescribed fire grow. "One of the fire guys told me that in a half-hour it would look like a mushroom cloud from a nuclear bomb, and he was right."

Reid owns a cabin on the north shore of Gunflint Lake, and he had spent the morning with a couple of buddies clearing debris from the property and making sure his sprinklers were working.

"That cabin is the legacy I want to leave my kids," Reid said. "The first thing I want is for everyone to be safe. But my next greatest wish is that they keep our properties from burning up."

The day's fireworks occurred as management was being transferred from a Type II Incident Management Team to a Type I team, reflecting the fire's growing size and complexity.

Residents applauded the Type II team commander John Stegmeir as he said goodbye at a meeting Wednesday. The residents were recognizing that even though about 40 structures have been lost, at least that many have been saved through efforts such as Wednesday's burnout.

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