DULUTH – Minnesota's largest wildfire advanced at least 2 more miles Monday, forcing fire crews to retreat and spurring further evacuations as loggers were enlisted to build barriers to try and slow it down.
Likening the fire to a "freight train," at a Monday night public meeting in Finland, incident commander Brian Pisarek said its quickly formed intensity surprised crews.
"We had to pull our folks out," he said of crews protecting structures around the McDougal Lake area. "It was a tough day for firefighters today."
As the fire headed north and northeast toward Hwy. 1 on Monday afternoon, officials triggered evacuations of 159 more homes and cabins, now numbering 290 in all. The fire jumped state Hwy. 1 in one area, but crews were able to control it.
On Sunday, loggers received fire training then began work to create barriers to slow its spread.
Firefighters will assess properties in the fire's path Tuesday for damage.
Strong, gusty winds, low humidity and high temperatures created near-critical fire weather, said Clark McCreedy, the public information officer for the interagency team managing the fire.
Fire officials are tracking nine fires in drought-stricken northern Minnesota. Four of them are being monitored by air.
The state's largest, the Greenwood fire in northeastern Minnesota's Superior National Forest, grew from 14 square miles to at least 16 square miles Monday, although it's an estimate that will be confirmed Tuesday, said Joanna Gilkeson, a public information officer for the U.S. Forest Service.
Pisarek said it would probably be weeks, not months, until residents could return, and said those who lose property would be allowed to return sooner to assess damage.
Weather later in the week was expected to help efforts to manage the fire, and resources from Montana are en route after fires there were tempered by rain, he said.
Residents around Grouse and Mitawan lakes and east of McDougal lakes were among those evacuated, said Matt Pollmann, Lake County's emergency manager. A new Red Cross evacuation center was set up at Babbitt Municipal Center, replacing the one previously set up in Finland.
Meanwhile, a wildfire started Sunday on the east end of Isle Royale, a 206-square-mile island and national park in Lake Superior, about 35 miles from Grand Portage, Minn., in Michigan.
Isle Royale National Park says the Horne fire, near the shore of Duncan Bay, is about 200 acres. Because of drought conditions and elevated fire danger, the park instituted several closures of campgrounds, trails, docks, and camping zones.
The Superior National Forest fires prompted the closure of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness over the weekend for the first time in 45 years.
The closure allows crews to focus on existing and new fires and not camper safety, as rangers continue to paddle and hike out to visitors to alert them of the closure.
In a social media video posted Monday, Connie Cummins, forest supervisor, explained the decision to close the BWCA.
The U.S. Forest Service has been fighting fire since spring, she said, but drought conditions have continued to worsen to levels "we have not seen to date."
"It's not a decision I make easily," Cummins said, citing the impacts to businesses, visitors who've spent months planning trips and Forest Service employees who come for long periods to help from all over the country. She said the decision will be re-evaluated daily, and some areas may open sooner than others.
The Forest Service has eliminated remaining reservable permits for all entry points on recreation.gov for the remainder of the overnight permit season, which is through September.
It was done to prevent new reservations and inevitable cancellations of those as some areas and uses may open before others, Gilkeson said.
Another large fire within the BWCA, the John Ek fire, grew to 1,500 acres Monday. Formerly called the John Elk fire, it was caused by a lightning strike 2.5 miles south of Little Saganaga Lake. Because of poor access, no crews are directly fighting it, save for some aerial water drops.
Fire officials encouraged area property owners to start their sprinkler systems to dampen the ground, and have announced a pre-evacuation for residents from Seagull Lake to the south end of Loon Lake along the Gunflint Trail.
Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450