The U.S. Forest Service said Sunday that the raging wildfire in Superior National Forest did not expand its reach over the weekend, but that's not dampening anxieties for people in the area who fear the dangerous tinder-dry conditions will remain through the fall.
"It is so brutally dry. We just aren't getting the rain. The woods look sad. The leaves are falling," said Susan Rian, owner of the Trestle Inn Restaurant & Saloon near Finland. "A month from now could be even scarier."
The slowdown in the growth of the Greenwood fire comes as precautionary evacuations are underway in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, which has been closed to visitors for the first time in 45 years due to limited resources to address the fire threat. The 1 million-acre BWCA is within the boundaries of northeastern Minnesota's Superior National Forest.
The 14-square-mile Greenwood fire, the state's largest wildfire, in Superior National Forest was expanding by about 1,000 acres a day since it started Aug. 15. But after growing to nearly 7 square miles Thursday night and burning through Friday, the Forest Service reported an estimated fire footprint of 9,067 acres on Saturday. That acreage decreased to 8,862 as of Sunday afternoon after infrared mapping provided a more accurate footprint.
"They didn't see a lot of movement from the fire yesterday," Joanna Gilkeson, a public information officer for the Forest Service, said during a phone interview Sunday. "It was very, very active Friday and then kind of stayed in its footprint yesterday."
None of the Greenwood fire has been contained and several other smaller wildfires ignited by lightning strikes have been reported inside the BWCA.
Without significant rain in the forecast this week to bring relief amid the drought and heat, operations are focused on protecting structures along Hwy. 2 north of the fire along Slate Lake and to the east around McDougal Lake.
The highway is closed from Forest Hwy. 11 to Hwy. 1, which also is closed from New Tomahawk Road to Lankinen Road.
A temporary flight restriction over the area is in place along with remaining fire restrictions and evacuation orders affecting at least 90 homes and cabins.
Gilkeson said the John Elk fire (whose name is based on a misspelling of John Ek Lake) is one of several smaller fires inside the BWCA. It rapidly expanded Friday from 3 acres to an estimated 1,500 but has now been reduced to 727 acres. The Forest Service provided an update on acreage Sunday that's more accurate from aerial flights' mapping.
The Whelp fire, caused by lightning, is 5 miles northwest of Sawbill Lake and was at 50 acres.
Aircraft were dropping water on the fire while wilderness ranger crews were paddling nearby Louse River to get visitors out of the area.
Gilkeson said there are about seven fires in the area, including several inside the BWCA that are "remote and hard to reach."
The decision to close the BWCA was made to prioritize limited resources. No firefighters have been sent to the Whelp fire because of limited aircraft resources and difficulty accessing it safely.
"We're using the same resources to respond to all the fires and any crisis that were to occur in the Boundary Waters," she said, adding that a search and rescue would have to utilize a plane now used to fight wildfires.
Resources and crews include 200 personnel and three aircrafts, while other equipment from partners as far as Georgia will provide assistance.
Aside from the Greenwood fire, several other fires in Lake County have been contained and are being monitored.
The Forest Service said areas near the Whelp, Greenwood and Crooked Lake fires have been closed off, allowing firefighters to focus on active fires rather than public safety.
The first BWCA evacuation in 45 years is, unlike the regional drought, a very "fluid situation," Gilkeson said. While it's more of a proactive rather than emergency evacuation, she said the evacuation is planned for seven days with permits through Aug. 27 canceled.
Chances for rain on Friday were instead a "trickle," Gilkeson said, and while there is a slight chance of rain Sunday evening, she said it's not enough.
"We need a several-day downpour," she said.
The weather forecast for Ely, according to the National Weather Service, shows showers likely for Tuesday with the possibility of thunderstorms in the evening. The next chance for showers is Thursday night and again on Friday.
Rian said her short-staffed crew and the occasional firefighter fueling up at her restaurant are praying for rain to combat the greatest drought she's seen.
She said while the Greenwood wildfire is about 18 miles away, she recently was told that she should be prepared to evacuate. But she said this fire isn't nearly as scary as the Pagami Creek fire in 2011 that scorched 145 square miles of forest and 10% of the BWCA a decade ago.
Even though the Pagami Creek fire was closer and larger, Rian said this year is far drier. She said that, just like what happened a decade ago, she fears the Greenwood fire won't be gone until the snow falls.
Damon Greene, who lives along the Baptism River 2 miles south of Finland and rents out a couple of cabins, hopes that more snowfall will prevent another wildfire season next year.
While the North Shore is almost a guaranteed winter wonderland, that wasn't the case this past winter.
"There was no snow," he said.
Followed by a dry spring and drought-stricken summer, he said "it's a bad combination for sure," breeding wildfires and draining the Baptism River to its lowest level he's seen since purchasing the property in 2011 with his wife, Jennifer.
"My thoughts are with these firefighters and a lot of local people helping out," he said. "You hope for the best, but it's going to be a long fall."
Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751