More than 30 acres of pine and spruce trees have burned in a wildfire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness northwest of Ely.

Tim Rova, Superior National Forest fire management officer

Firefighters working the Cummings Lake fire were flown into the area on Forest Service float planes with canoes loaded onto the floats. The crews then paddled to the lakeshore.

Tim Rova, Superior National Forest fire management officer

Dry conditions fuel BWCA wildfire

  • Article by: MARY LYNN SMITH and TIM HARLOW
  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • September 4, 2012 - 12:03 AM

Firefighters Monday battled a blaze fueled by "crispy," dry conditions in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness northwest of Ely.

The fire erupted about mid-afternoon Sunday near Cummings Lake, blackening more than 30 acres of pine and spruce wilderness by Monday afternoon. About 14 firefighters and a helicopter worked throughout Monday to douse the fire. A CL-215 water bomber, a large fixed-wing aircraft that gathers water up from lakes, remained on standby in Hibbing, said Superior National Forest spokeswoman Becca Manlove.

The fire began near a campsite on the northeast shore of Otter Lake and spread to the western shore of Cummings Lake by Monday, she said. The cause of the fire is being investigated.

Manlove said she didn't know if any campers were in the area but pointed out that that particular canoe route doesn't attract a lot of paddlers. "If there are campers there, the firefighters will move them out," she said.

Although the U.S. Forest Service sometimes allows wilderness fires to burn under certain conditions, firefighters responded immediately to the Cummings fire, in part because of the extremely dry conditions in the northland, Manlove said. An outbreak of forest fires out West also is stressing Forest Service resources, forcing it to fight all fires immediately so they don't get out of control, she said.

Last year, the Pagami Creek fire that began Sept. 12 consumed 145 square miles in and around the BWCA. Because of wetter conditions at the time, the Forest Service monitored the Pagami fire according to policies intended to allow natural forces, including fires, to influence the wilderness mix of vegetation. In the long run, burned areas can stop the spread of new wildfires.

But changing conditions quickly outran expectations and the Pagami Creek fire rapidly spread, becoming the largest fire Minnesota had seen in 93 years.

Other fires

On average, 60 to 70 fires erupt in the Superior National Forest every year, Manlove said.

On Monday, a fire burning in Quetico Provincial Park's canoe wilderness area in Canada also was sending plumes of smoke over the Ely area. The fire, which started on Norway Point of Basswood Lake, had consumed about 20 acres, Manlove said. With winds blowing from the south and west, the Ontario fire was moving north away from the BWCA, she said.

While both those fires continued to burn Monday, a forest fire near Duluth was quickly shut down with the help of an alert resort owner and campers who helped ferry firefighters.

Vernon Skoglund spotted the fire as he climbed onto the roof of his house Saturday, as he often does to watch wolves and other animals near the Silver Fox Lodge, about 20 miles north of Duluth on Boulder Lake Road.

"I knew right away that didn't look good," said Skoglund, who has been climbing onto what he calls his lookout tower for the past 32 years. "I called it in. There are some nice big pines up there. If the wind had come up, it could have really got going."

Skoglund's instincts and the good Samaritans who used their boats to get fire crews and their equipment to the remote area on the northeast side of Boulder Lake within 30 minutes of the call kept damage to a minimum, said Tammi Salo, a member of the Gnesen Volunteer Fire Department. It burned a cabin and about 500 feet of forestland, but it was a near miss, she said.

"We were very fortunate we had no wind and [we had] citizens with boats," she said. It "most definitely" could have turned into bigger fire.

Crews from Normanna and Fredenberg fire departments and the DNR also responded.

Fire danger remains high to very high across the BWCA and the northern tier of counties of the state, with extreme danger conditions in the northwestern corner of the state, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said Monday. Fires can start easily and spread rapidly in these areas due to the warm and dry conditions.

After 13 months of drought in northwestern Minnesota, the DNR said wildfire conditions are challenging, and authorities have reported that recent fires have spread quickly through green and cured grasses. The Juneberry Road fire that began Aug. 21 in northwestern Minnesota grew to 700 acres despite strong suppression efforts. Peat in ground deposits and organic soils are igniting quickly and burning deep into the ground, an indication of the extremely dry conditions, the DNR said.

With no relief in sight, the potential for large fires remains. The DNR is reminding people to keep vegetation away from campfires, attend to fires at all times and make sure the fire is cold to the touch before leaving the campsite.

Failure to properly and fully extinguish campfires is a common cause of wildfires. 612-673-4788 • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @timstrib

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