Wildfires raging in drought-stricken northern Minnesota forced the closure of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on Saturday for the first time in 45 years, with campers who were already inside the 1 million-acre wilderness being evacuated.
Nobody is in immediate danger and the emergency restrictions are precautionary, said Joanna Gilkeson, a public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service. "To keep people safe, we need to get them out of there."
The state's largest wildfire, the 14-square-mile Greenwood fire in northeastern Minnesota's Superior National Forest, is a factor in the closure, but it is outside the BWCA, Gilkeson said. The fire that most threatens safety within the wilderness area itself is the smaller John Elk blaze.
The John Elk fire (whose name is based on a misspelling of John Ek Lake) is considered dangerous because it has spread rapidly, expanding from 3 acres to 1,500 acres in Friday's hot, dry weather and gusty winds. Ground suppression is not possible because of difficult access and firefighter safety concerns, according to the Forest Service.
Seven much smaller fires have been detected in or around the BWCA over the past few days, although most have been fully or partly contained.
The complete closure of the BWCA, the first since 1976, includes all lands, waters, trails, portages, campsites, canoe routes and BWCA entry points, the Forest Service said. All overnight and day use, including motorized day use, is prohibited for at least seven days or until the closure is canceled by the forest supervisor.
Rangers were sweeping the area and telling visitors to leave. Gilkeson said several hundred people are thought to be in the BWCA. Individuals who violate the evacuation orders could face fines of up to $5,000, and organizations could be fined up to $10,000.
Marjie Willer of Seagull Outfitters in Grand Marais called the Wilderness Area's closure "heartbreaking."
"We feel for everyone that's so excited to be here," Willer said. "But the animals and solitude of [the BWCA] — any chance of that being ruined — is much harder to take in."
Wildlife likely will escape the fire. "They are adapted to the ecosystems and need fire to maintain some of their habitat," Gilkeson said.
The Forest Service has canceled permits from Saturday through Aug. 27. Permit holders will be fully reimbursed. Updates, including information about smaller wildfires, are available on the Superior National Forest web page.
Meanwhile, sprinkles of rain on Friday night did little to deter the Greenwood fire, which grew to 14 square miles on Saturday and remains uncontrolled. About 250 firefighters, including some from out of state, were battling the blaze Saturday.
About 245 homes and cabins in Lake County were ordered evacuated, said Matt Pollmann, the county's emergency management director.
The 9,067-acre blaze had grown from 8,215 acres the day before, potentially threatening homes and cabins. No structures were thought to be harmed as of Saturday, nor were any injuries reported.
Overnight winds gusted to 20 miles per hour, less than the 50-mph gusts forecasters had feared. But the area saw only a fraction of an inch of rain, with the least precipitation falling over the fire area itself.
"Enough to settle the dust, little more than that," said Clark McCreedy, a spokesman for the multiagency team fighting the blaze. "With fire, we're always at the mercy of the weather ... anytime we get a shift in the wind that could drive the fire" in another direction.
A wind shift to the northwest, he said, could push the fire toward the east. Friday's southwestwinds pushed the blaze 4 miles north across County Hwy. 2 in rural Lake County.
The Lake County Sheriff's Office has ordered evacuation of homes and cabins in areas around McDougal Lake, Sand Lake, the Hwy. 2 corridor, and north of Hwy. 1 near East and West Chub lakes, Jackpot Lake and Slate Lake.
Temperatures were lower Saturday, humidity higher and skies cloudy — all factors that can help moderate fire behavior by blocking the sun from drying out the forest floor, McCreedy said.
"Nonetheless, it's already dry because we didn't get enough precipitation out of that weather last night," he said.
Even strong smoke works like a cloud cover to block the sun, he said. However, substantial smoke also hinders the use of aircraft to attack flames from above.
The weekend's firefighting efforts are focused on protecting homes and cabins, McCreedy said. That means spraying buildings and surrounding property with water mixed with soap to help it cling to surfaces.
When possible, firefighters may also create a "black line," using controlled fires to remove fuel on the fire's periphery, barring its spread. The fire's intensity limits firefighters' ability to battle flames right on the perimeter.
"For today, what we're doing is just taking advantage of where we can work," McCreedy said. "The southern flank of fire is where we want to establish a good, hard anchor that folks can work on. Once that's established, we move up east and west flanks."
The fire, caused by lightning, was first reported Aug. 15 about 15 miles southwest of Isabella. Roads, campgrounds and recreational areas are closed and a Red Cross shelter at the Finland Community Center has been established. Go to inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/7805 for more information on the fire.
Staff writer Jana Hollingsworth contributed to this report.