Fire grows in BWCA blowdown area

  • Article by: LARRY OAKES and TOM FORD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 17, 2006 - 10:17 AM

Forest managers are optimistic that prescribed burns and other measures can contain the biggest fire since the 1999 storm.

GRAND MARAIS, MINN. -- A wildfire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness grew to more than 41/2 square miles Sunday, making it the largest in the BWCA since a 1999 storm downed millions of trees and set the stage for larger and faster fires.

Forest managers who met with Gov. Tim Pawlenty after he flew over the area Sunday afternoon said they're cautiously optimistic that prescribed burns and other steps taken since the blowdown will prevent the fire from threatening inhabited areas along the nearby Gunflint Trail.

The Cavity Lake fire was burning in what officials described as "heavy blowdown timber" about a mile south of Seagull Lake near the end of the Gunflint Trail, about 50 miles northwest of Grand Marais. Officials believe lightning caused the fire, which was spotted Friday by a U.S. Forest Service plane.

"It's a very powerful sight to see," Pawlenty said at a news conference at the Gunflint District Ranger Station of the Superior National Forest, which manages the BWCA. "There are the flames on the ground and smoke going up in a column, almost like a chimney."

The recent heat spell gripping Minnesota and the eastern Dakotas started to taper off Sunday, at least for the metro area, thanks in part to cloud cover. By Sunday afternoon, the National Weather Service had lifted its metro-wide heat advisory.

Elsewhere Sunday, fire conditions remained so critical that the weather service issued a "red flag warning'' for the second straight day for parts of west-central and northwestern Minnesota. There were no red flag warnings in effect on Monday.

While many cities in that region had temperatures Sunday in the mid-90s, with some heat-index readings reaching 110, temperatures in the upper 80s were the norm for the bulk of the metro area.

The temperature Sunday at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport topped out at 94 degrees.

"It will feel quite a bit better" today, said Weather Service forecaster Mike Bardou.

A high-pressure system from Canada is expected to make its way into the metro area today. It is likely to keep the air less humid and temperatures in the 80s and low 90s, Bardou said. And there will be more typical cooling-off periods overnight, he said. As for rain, that could come by midweek.

Back in Grand Marais, Pawlenty said he wanted to see the fire firsthand "because the BWCA is a Minnesota icon" and because he wanted to pledge the state's support in fighting the fire and reducing the risk of blowdown fires in the future.

More than 150 firefighters are expected to arrive in the next few days, said Greg Peterson, a federal Bureau of Indian Affairs official coordinating the firefighting efforts of several agencies.

So far, only aircraft have been used on the fire because putting people into burning blowdown areas is considered too dangerous, Peterson said. Instead, he said, firefighters are setting up about a mile east of the fire, in an area where prescribed burns have reduced the "fuel load." He said the plan is to let the fire burn into that area, where it can be more easily controlled.

"That gives us a very good stronghold," Peterson said.

Peterson said it could be two or three weeks before the Cavity Lake fire is considered safely contained.

So far, eight canoe portages in the vicinity of the fire have been temporarily closed, along with the Brandt Lake and Kekekabic Trail East entry points.

In the Twin Cities, the heat wave seemed to have passed without any major emergencies. Several dozen people came to hospitals over the weekend for heat exhaustion, but most were treated and later released.

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