Ely beats back a wildfire that crept to edge of town

The fire, sparked by a downed power line, threatened the northern tourist town, prompting a hurried evacuation.

ELY, MINN. - A wildfire sparked by a downed power line, fed by tinder-dry terrain and fanned by strong winds threatened the popular tourist town of Ely on Thursday, prompting a hurried evacuation as firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze before it could roar into town.

About 150 acres were charred before firefighters working in the air and on the ground were able to get the blaze in hand by early evening. At least one outbuilding was destroyed, but no one was hurt, and most residents returned to their homes late Thursday.

But throughout the afternoon, residents watched the dramatic spectacle and anxiously wondered how close the flames would get.

Vigilance will remain high into the next few days, and weeks. Minnesota's fire season has just begun, and woods and grasslands are powder-dry because little snow fell this past winter. Recent warmth has continued to dry the landscape, which has yet to experience spring green-up.

For some, the sirens, planes and plume of smoke triggered memories of last summer's Pagami Creek blaze, which blackened 145 square miles in and around the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. That fire was the largest Minnesota had seen in 93 years.

"I thought, 'Oh, no, not another summer of wildfires,'" said Daniel Posch, who works for Piragis Northwoods Co. "After Pagami Creek, now we're going to have one in town?"

'A bit of excitement'

The blaze erupted about 1:45 p.m. when a power line went down on Hwy. 1, about a quarter mile outside Ely, a premier cabin and resort area and a major gateway to the BWCA. Within minutes, sparks from the line had started several small fires in a nearby grassy area east of Hwy. 1, which then spread into the woods, quickly blackening 20 acres and sending up a plume of dark smoke that could be seen across the town of about 3,500 people.

Residents watched tanker planes and helicopters scoop water from nearby Shagawa Lake and dump it on the fire. Some were evacuated for a few hours to the town's community center. And they waited for word that the blaze was being held at bay, and breathed sighs of relief when it finally came.

"I'm not going to say there was panic -- I would say that it was a bit of excitement," said Steven Nelson, who closed his outfitting business Spirit of the Wilderness at 4 p.m. because of the heavy smoke.

"There was concern, but I don't see the 'Oh-my-gosh, the-place-is-going-down' panic. But with the wind blowing toward Ely, I suspect that's where the anxiety of what could happen came," Nelson said.

Carson Berglund, an information officer with the state's Interagency Fire Center, based in Grand Rapids, said firefighters were "throwing everything they can at it because it's so close to town and buildings."

Four air tankers, which can scoop 1,400 gallons of water in 10 seconds, were enlisted to help douse the fire, along with a large helicopter called the Sky Crane and a smaller copter. Four bulldozers and more than a dozen engines worked at ground level to contain the fire, which came within a quarter mile of structures.

Flames crowned through some of the trees and could be seen from the city as smoke enveloped the town, eyewitnesses said. The fire threatened a cellphone tower and caused power to flicker on and off in Ely, taking the only community radio station, 94.5 WELY, off the air.

David Schmidt, who lives about a mile from the fire site, picked up his daughters and his wife from school, his pets from home and headed to the west side of town to watch as planes flew 50 to 100 feet overhead, shuttling water to the fire.

"Our only source of information was the police scanner," he said. "It was a little scary. My girls seemed to be more upset than me. I have learned to not fool with Mother Nature and be super cautious."

'We sure need some rain'

At a community meeting Thursday night at Vermilion Community College, Mark Van Every of the Forest Service said people from seven homes evacuated along Hwy. 1 south of town will have to stay away until the area is safe. He could not say when that might be.

"We are going to get strong winds [Friday]," he said. "There is a lot of heat. There is still potential for this fire to get up and move again."

There's also a 50 percent chance of rain Friday, and a 70 percent chance Saturday.

Dick and Nancy Rodich had not been allowed to return to their home late Thursday. Earlier, Dick said, he had walked outside his home and saw a massive plume of smoke. He drove to a neighbor's driveway for a better view, and shortly after he got home, Forest Service personnel pulled into his yard and told him, "You are out of here," he said.

The Rodiches said they worry about fire every summer, but had never been evacuated before. "Next time we might be more prepared," Nancy said.

Sandra Baier, who operates a day-care center in Ely, said she was "a little panicky" as planes flew overhead and sirens blared. But by early evening, the sense of panic lessened, she said.

Ronnie Dufresne first thought the smoke was coming from the old city dump where dead trees are burned. But she knew there wouldn't be a burn on such a windy day.

Dufresne said she wasn't worried about her home because the wind would have to do "a complete about-face" for her house to be in danger. But, "boy, we sure need some rain," she said.

Staff writer Nicole Norfleet contributed to this report. mlsmith@startribune.com 612-673-4788 jmarcotty@startribune.com 612-673-7394

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