Crews gear up as BWCA fire wakes up

After a quiet two days, firefighters poised to rein in blaze while facing higher temperatures, stronger winds and dry conditions.

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ELY, MINN. - With temperatures rising and winds gusting, Doug Turman dispatched firefighters to some of the most dangerous areas of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on Friday as they prepared for what could be a crucial moment battling the mammoth month-old blaze.

By bush plane and canoe, elite "hot shot" firefighters raced to the northwestern edge of the fire to try to block it from creeping north toward an area hard hit by the 1999 blowdown.

Turman, a Libby, Mont., native, was in his element as new commander of the firefighting effort, a role he assumed Thursday. As the leader of one of the most skilled firefighting and disaster teams in the nation, he has led efforts to battle some of the worst forest fires in the West. He's responded after hurricanes and even helped recover pieces of the space shuttle Columbia after it broke apart over the Texas prairie.

In the BWCA, if his plan works, these firefighters who have fought off cold, paddled along lakes and risked falling trees will pin in the fire and take a huge step toward preventing its spread. But if winds pick up unexpectedly, or myriad other factors break the wrong way, the slow-moving blaze that has scorched more than 156 square miles could claw its way to the sun-cooked timber of the blowdown area and burst forth anew.

"Right now, this thing could go one way or the other," Turman said.

The fire was relatively quiet Friday, making minimal growth. But stronger winds are predicted for Saturday, ahead of rain Sunday morning.

About 500 people are battling the blaze. Firefighters caught a break as Turman's team started to arrive in the area late this week. After exploding Sunday and Monday from what had been a modest, meandering pattern, the fire settled back, its spread slowed by colder weather and lighter winds.

The fire's been "taking a nap the last two days," Doug Anderson, spokesman for the fire command center in Ely, said Friday morning. But when it wakes up, "we don't know what kind of mood it will be in."

The time to attack it is now, Turman said Friday afternoon, before the winds kick up and it threatens to make another run. "We are going to tie it in the best we can so it doesn't go anywhere," he said.

Inside the national forest near the town of Isabella, crews working 15-hour shifts laid thousands of feet of hose, dousing hot spots as they marched on to create a barrier to stop the fire.

Inside the burn area, huge stands of blackened trees smoked in the cool, dry air. The sound of chain saws deep in the woods marked where crews took down "snags," trees that could topple in the slightest breeze because fire had burned through their roots.

"We call them silent killers," said Jim Grant, one of the Forest Service division directors.

Visit from Dayton

Gov. Mark Dayton flew over the area Friday morning with members of Minnesota's congressional delegation, surveying the smoky, charred landscape.

After a briefing with fire officials, Dayton said he felt confident "everything humanly possible was being done to contain this and protect the lives and safety of the citizens of Minnesota."

Wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, he pledged to make sure Turman has the resources needed to fight the blaze.

Meanwhile, people around Isabella just below the southern edge of the fire breathed a sigh of relief Friday when one of the leaders of a "hot shot" crew told them that winds were expected to move what they called the "sleeping giant" away from their homes and lake cabins.

Many have been living out of suitcases during the last week, waiting for the word that they should flee if the fire moved in.

"The winds are in our favor," said Mike O'Neil, who had driven up with his wife, Judy, from southern Minnesota to check on the family cabin on a lake just 5 miles from fire's edge.

They did what they could to fire-proof their yard and home. Forest rangers told them to clear away the brush from beneath their tall red pines, and move a stack of firewood away from the house if they could. But it was too late to move out their snowmobiles and camper. Those will just stay in the garage.

They and others at the meeting at the Isabella community center took some comfort from Don Sorenson, a bearded and quietly confident "hot shot" who was directing the firefighting efforts on the southern edge of the fire.

"Access is tough," he said.

He said the biggest problem was too much water: Heavy equipment was sinking into the boggy soil. At the same time, he said, the peat is also a rich fuel and "will hold fire for a long time."

Firefighters have not contained any area of the blaze. Anderson, a spokesman for the firefighting effort, said it could take months -- and a heavy snowfall -- before the fire it is fully extinguished.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said that between midnight and 8 a.m. Friday, the agency's air-monitoring station near Ely reported fine-particle pollution in the "very unhealthy'' category. By 10 a.m., pollution levels had dropped substantially, below levels of health concern. But PCA officials say the danger is unpredictable because of shifts in the wind and fire intensity.

Exposure to soot and fine particulates in the "very unhealthy'' category can aggravate lung and heart conditions, especially among children and elderly people. The agency said people who cannot leave the area should stay inside, with doors and windows shut, and avoid strenuous activity.

'Learning the lessons'

The government has already spent more than $2.2 million battling the blaze, which started Aug. 18 after a lightning strike near Pagami Creek.

On his visit, Dayton was joined by U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, a Republican who has been critical of the way the federal government manages fires in wilderness areas.

"Right now is not the time to be pointing fingers," Cravaack said. "Now is the time to be learning the lessons from this fire. This is the worst fire we've had in almost 100 years, so let's be sure we learn from it."

Ely Mayor Roger Skraba stood off to the side during the news conference. Like many in the area, he's frustrated that the federal government won't allow logging companies to clear downed trees in the wilderness area, which he said has created a tinder box.

Outside, he looked off into the forest and said he wished they would just let it burn.

"This is the best thing that could happen," he said. "They aren't going to manage the area, so let it rip."

baird.helgeson@startribune.com • 651-222-1288 marcotty@startribune.com • 612-673-7394

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