Winds give BWCA fire a scary new life

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 13, 2011 - 11:49 AM

Rocky Mountain fire crews were called in, campers were told to leave and the weather forecast remained unfavorable.

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Smoke rose from the south between Lake Four and Three.

Photo: Greg Seitz , Special to the Star Tribune

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High winds propelled a forest fire across the northern Minnesota wilderness Monday, quadrupling its size, forcing evacuations of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and several dozen homes, and prompting officials to call for national firefighting reinforcements.

On Monday, the Pagami Creek fire, which started with a lightning strike 20 miles east of Ely in late August and burned inconsequentially for more than a week, had charred more than 20,000 acres after strong northwest winds caused it to bolt south and east. The fire "has confounded a lot of people," said Jean Bergerson, lead public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service and local agencies on this fire. On Monday, it was approaching one-third the size of 2007's Ham Lake fire, the state's most destructive blaze in nearly 90 years.

A forecast calling for continued winds, unusually low humidity and only a slight chance of rain through Wednesday prompted local officials to seek to transfer management of the fire to a Forest Service team from Rocky Mountain states. That team should arrive in the area Tuesday, Bergerson said.

About 150 firefighters from Minnesota and other Midwestern states have been fighting the blaze. But winds have hampered efforts to attack it from the air, and firefighters paddling into the burn areas, like canoeists paddling out, have struggled to move on wind-whipped lakes, Bergerson said.

She said the fire was moving too fast south and east for crews to build a fire line ahead of it. Dozens of lakes, rivers and entry points to the million-acre BWCA were closed Monday, including the popular Lake One entry east of Ely, and areas north of Hwy. 1. Through the weekend, Forest Service and law enforcement workers combed the area, contacting campers, telling them where to exit safely, taking names, tracking their progress and even offering rides to distant parking lots if paddlers had to exit far from where they'd started. More than 70 campers had left by Monday, and Bergerson said it was unlikely any remained in the fire area due to the patrols. On Monday the patrols expanded their range to campgrounds and other public sites outside the official wilderness area.

Greg Seitz of Maplewood, communications director for Friends of the Boundary Waters, who was canoeing and camping near the fire Wednesday through Sunday, said some patrol members even offered to carry his group's packs.

"That was kind of unique," he said. "They really wanted to keep people moving. We didn't feel endangered."

Still, Seitz said he and his fellow campers -- including a friend home from a tour of military duty in Afghanistan -- had on Saturday choked on smoke in their campsite several miles east of the fire area, been tracked by helicopters and paddled through falling ash and charred leaves on their way out Sunday. He described that experience as "surreal," but added that he views the fire as a natural event that will benefit the wilderness in the long run.

'A historical event'

Lake County sheriff's deputies went door-to-door Monday night in an area north and east of Isabella, about 7 miles from the fire front, asking residents to leave their homes in a "precautionary" evacuation. A temporary shelter was being established for evacuees in Finland, about 15 miles south.

A community informational meeting was scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday in Isabella; another was to be held Tuesday in Ely.

The fire, with its updrafts of warm air, generated some of its own thunderclouds -- "pyrocumulus," according to Kevin Kraujalis, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Duluth. They were visible to campers and others far from the fire, but evidently did not drop enough rain to douse the flames. Only one observer in the region that included the fire reported any rain Monday -- 0.02 inches. Much of the Minnesota Arrowhead region, including the BWCA, has been classified as drought-struck in recent weeks by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Bergerson noted that over the past two days, the fire spread far beyond what originally had been expected to be its limits. "It's been a historical event of its own making," she said.

Meanwhile, the Department of Natural Resources is withholding permits for outdoor burning in most counties extending from the metro area to the Canadian border until conditions improve.

To the west, another fire

A fire started by lightning Aug. 28 in Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota now covers about 2 acres in mixed pine and hardwood timber. The fire is burning east of Tooth Lake, about 2 miles south of Namakan Lake.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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