Entry into Ely scarred in wildfire's aftermath

The lush green forest was devastated in the blaze just south of the Boundary Waters gateway, and will take years to recover.

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ELY, MINN. - The road into Ely will look different to visitors in the next few years.

Cleaning up behind a small, fast and exceedingly dangerous fire that threatened Ely late Thursday, some 100 firefighters spent Friday working their way through the woods with chainsaws, hoses and axes.

When they are done, the last mile of Hwy. 1 just south of town will lose much of the distinctive forest that has lined the road.

Officials from the Minnesota Incident Command, which is running the firefighting effort, said the nearly 200-acre fire was well under control late Friday, though they remained concerned that the warm, windy weather could still carry a burning branch outside the perimeter.

A stretch of Hwy. 1 remained closed Friday evening, and residents of seven homes were still out after being ordered to evacuate Thursday. Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jean Goad said they would likely be allowed to return to their homes Saturday.

Goad said the fire spread only slightly Friday to cover 216 acres, despite high winds. No air support for firefighters was used.

And life had returned pretty much to normal in Ely, a town of 3,500 people. Cellphone service was back on, and End of the Road Radio was back on the air, notifying its audience that a child's bike had been found.

The previous day, residents didn't know if their town would still be standing after a brisk wind and a downed power line combined to threaten it.

But emergency response from 11 community fire departments, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Forest Service was swift.

"It could have gone one of two ways," said Daria Day, spokeswoman for the incident command system. "It could have hopped through town. But we hit it with everything we had."

That included four water-scooping air tankers and helicopters, which dropped load after load of water and fire retardant chemical on the leading edge of the fire where it threatened homes on the southeast side of Ely. Most of that part of town was evacuated until early evening. On Friday, six homeowners along Hwy. 1 had still not been permitted to return.

By midday Friday, the effort had been downsized to three helicopters and one air tanker, and the sound of chainsaws filled the air.

"Our main concern is getting the hot spots on this stretch," said Brian Leitzinger, a firefighter with the DNR. "It's very hot, and the humidity is lower than normal."

The U.S. Forest Service will restrict campfires in the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Starting Saturday, campfires, charcoal or wood-burning camp stoves will be allowed only between 7 p.m. and midnight.

Staff writer Bill McAuliffe contributed to this report. Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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