ISABELLA, Minn. – An overturned wagon and garden stones are about all of the Signorelli property that survived as the Greenwood fire tore through the McDougal Lakes area last month on its way to encompassing some 41 square miles.
On Wednesday, family members saw the ruins of their longtime cabin on Middle McDougal Lake for the first time. The merciless blaze destroyed their 1,000-plus-square-foot cabin, a blacksmith shed and forge, a garage storing cherished Rehbein canoes, a sauna and even kayaks resting next to the water.
The remains of giant wooden beams where the cabin once stood lay charred to a crisp. Cast-iron pans and silverware warped and blistered were scattered where the kitchen once stood, the coils of a bunk-bed mattress the only reminder of a sleeping loft.
Sandy Signorelli, 76, and her grown children, Mike and Lara Signorelli, picked through the ashen heaps of unrecognizable appliances and melted material trying to uncover a beloved cast-iron griddle and stonemason tools, heirlooms from their great-grandfather, an Italian immigrant who helped build Duluth's Enger Tower.
"It's history," said Lara, 48, of what the cabin meant to her family. She will eventually inherit the property, but she's not sure it will be the same once rebuilt.
"How many years is it going to be before it's enjoyable to be up here?" she asked. "You don't feel like you're in the woods anymore."
Northern Minnesota's Greenwood fire destroyed 14 cabins and homes and nearly 60 outbuildings in its first ferocious week. Properties on the chain of McDougal Lakes, about 10 miles west of Isabella, suffered the most damage when the fire made a rapid run across thousands of acres on Aug. 23, a blaze so powerful firefighting crews withdrew for their own safety.
The Signorelli cabin, on a peaceful, island-dotted lake lush with wild rice grasses, had been enjoyed by Sandy and her husband, Mark, and their kids for 25 summers. Wild blueberries grew along the waterfront and a variety of pines and birch trees lined the roughly 2-acre property. A long deck overlooking the lake was the site for quiet nights lit by lanterns and a gathering place to watch sunsets with neighbors, many whose families have owned their cabins for generations.
Through a few tears, the family laughed and recalled memories as it searched. Mike found the unscathed "toenail jar," a family joke for nail clippings, where the bathroom once stood. A dog and cat graveyard was mostly untouched and a favorite white pine looked as if it may survive.
Sandy wishes she would have taken more as she evacuated the day the fire started. She had been optimistic about the fire's distant location as she watched ominous smoke plumes rise to the south.
"What is surprising is the level of damage it did in such a short amount of time," she said.
Properties on either side of the Signorellis were destroyed, but the fire didn't march a straight line. At the Henkels' property, three cabins down from the Signorellis, it singed surrounding trees and burned a woodpile, but stopped short of buildings. A ways down the road, a wooden cabin built in 1958 was untouched. Its neighbor property at the end of the peninsula, however, was leveled. A mile or so east of the area, fire burned so hot it decimated stands of trees and exposed massive boulders, leaving behind a barren, otherworldly landscape devoid of the sounds of birds and other wildlife.
"We're feeling a little bit of survivor's remorse," said Sandy Henkels, who, with husband, Rick, has owned property on the lake for 30 years. Their wide span of gravel surface and use of a water pump likely played a part in staving off the blaze, she said.
The Signorellis took part in the state's Firewise program, which works to help property owners reduce burnable foliage and trees around structures.
But their wood-paneled cabin was built on concrete posts, making it easy for a scorching fire to breach, they said. Trees outside their property ravaged by spruce budworm likely made things worse.
The Signorellis expect to rebuild, probably with a simpler construction and an eye toward guarding against wildfire. First, they and others, Sandy said, have to sort out how to dispose of hazardous waste and the wreckage left behind.
"Homeowners are facing disposal logistical nightmares," she said, and many standing dead and felled trees remain on their properties. With no obvious resources, "how am I supposed to guess at where things are supposed to go?"
A spokesman for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said natural disaster disposal sites are found throughout the state, including several in the Arrowhead region. A brush disposal site is near the McDougal Lake area on Bandana Lake Road, according to the Superior National Forest.
Sorting through the aftermath of a fire isn't something anyone is prepared for, said Sandy, who works as a behavioral health nurse in Duluth.
"What can you do?" she said with a shrug. "You just have to deal with it."
Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450