ELY, MINN. - Inside a chilly warehouse at sunset Wednesday, elite firefighters readied for the battle ahead.

Plywood walls were plastered with maps showing the growing footprint of the wildfire that's raging across Minnesota wilderness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Dozens of officials summoned to help subdue the blaze that has consumed more than 100,000 acres of forest crowded into a small conference center to discuss the difficult task facing 500 firefighters.

It's complex and dangerous work. The vast landscape means it can take hours for firefighters to reach the flames. Many teams have to paddle canoes to the front lines, then set up makeshift campsites. "We have a challenging situation," said Jim Sanders, Superior National Forest supervisor.

About 40 miles away in Isabella, 200 residents of the tiny outpost on the edge of the giant forest fire waited anxiously, hoping the firefighters can stop the blaze that has become Minnesota's biggest burn in more than 50 years.

Many were packing up their homes, some loading televisions, couches and overstuffed boxes onto trailers designed for snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles. As they pulled out, they passed a growing brigade of water tankers and support trucks coming in to aid the fight.

Others staying behind combed news reports for any new details on a fire that has defied predictions.

Relief, perhaps only temporary, arrived Wednesday when a hint of winter helped slow the fire. Snow and sleet fell across the region, with temperatures more than 40 degrees lower than last weekend reducing the fire's advance to a crawl, despite continuing strong northwest winds.

"This is a good news day," said incident commander Jim Hinds.

But the forecast calls for a return of warmer, drier weather into the weekend, with winds coming from the south. That could push the blaze northward, where it would be back into the wilderness area.

On Thursday morning, the operation to bring the blaze under control will be turned over to an elite group of firefighting managers. The new incident commander will be Doug Turman, who leads the Northern Rockies Incident Management Team.

Authorities said that a lightning strike on Aug. 18 started the fire at Pagami Creek, and that the U.S. Forest Service didn't anticipate the high winds and warm weather that spread it south and east early this week.

The Forest Service and the U.S. Weather Service spent part of Wednesday defending their performance in the weeks after the lightning strike.

The Forest Service has complained that forecasts since the fire began last month wrongly predicted days of rain that never materialized.

Forest Ranger Mark Van Every of the Kawishiwi station said the wind forecast was "completely wrong."

But Mike Stewart, meteorologist in charge of the Duluth office of the National Weather Service, said the rain predictions after the lightning strike called for 30- to 40-percent chances of widespread showers. Such a prediction, he said, means "a lot of areas are not going to get rain."

A wind shift on Sunday that helped spread the fire was predicted -- it just occurred about two or three hours earlier than forecast, Stewart said.

The Forest Service in turn defended its decision to conduct a burning operation on forest land between the fire at Pagami Creek and two lakes a couple of miles to the east. They said they conducted the operation after the fire was started by the lightning strike to prevent it from moving northeast and out of the wilderness into an area with cabins.

Forest Service spokeswoman Mary Shedd said the fire from the lightning strike would have spread to the southeast even without the operation, called a burnout.

"If they had not done the burnout the fire would most likely be even larger than it is," said spokeswoman Lisa Radosevich-Craig.

Cutting off the fire

Mike Rice was among those working on a fire line where workers attacked trees and roots with bulldozers and hand tools to remove combustible material in advance of the fire.

"It's very dangerous," he said. "There's obviously lots of smoke and fire, and hazardous trees -- snags, we call them -- that are weakened by fire. The winds have really become a hazard."

Just how dangerous became clear to six firefighters who huddled for an hour in individual emergency shelters Monday as the leading edge of the blaze blew past them. The six were working in the Insula Lake area when they heard the roar of the approaching fire, according to Van Every.

They jumped into canoes and tried to outpaddle the fire but were soon overtaken by smoke so thick they could see only each other's head lamps, as wind kicked up waves 3 to 4 feet high.

Several scrambled onto a bare rock and deployed the small, tent-like Kevlar shelters that each firefighter carries to protect against fire. Another jumped in the frigid lake and deployed the tent overhead, Van Every said.

The six were in radio contact with one another, but the smoke from the fire was so dense that aircraft searching for them could not find them.

They endured about an hour of fiery heat and showers of hot embers but emerged uninjured and were back on the job fighting the fire Wednesday, Van Every said.

Living on edge

In Isabella, resident Kelly Spina is electing to stay home for now but can't stop worrying.

For days, she has been overwhelmed with news reports, calls from concerned friends and text messages asking if she is OK.

When she steps out of her home, she can smell the smoke from the fire slowly chewing its way through the BWCA, edging ever closer to her home.

"Last night, I sat on my couch and cried about all the things I have worked so hard for that I could lose," Spina, 52, said Wednesday. "It's everything that I have. Everything."

Several dozen homes were in a mandatory evacuation area northeast of Isabella, but only 10 had residents living in them this week. Owners of hundreds of seasonal and year-round residences have been advised to leave.

Despite the fire's spread, no injuries or serious property damage have been reported.

Those who stay behind connect with neighbors through Facebook and check on cabins and homes of friends and loved ones.

Still paddling

Forest Service workers have been calling people with Boundary Waters entry permits and telling them about the fire and closures. But Sarah Jones, an employee at the U.S. Forest Service ranger station in Ely where campers check in, said few have canceled trips.

Those who do show up with permits to entry through now-closed access points are directed to entries to the east and northwest of the fire, which are still open.

Jones said that because paddlers coming to the area are fewer than in midsummer, it's been easy to find alternate routes for them.

"So far we're finding places for everybody. They want to go," she said.

mcaul@startribune.com • 612-673-7646 pdoyle@startribune.com • 612-673-4504 baird.helgeson@startribune.com • 651-222-1288