ELY, MINN. - And on the 32nd day, it rained.
For the first time in more than a month, weather became a significant ally in the fight against the Pagami Creek fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on Sunday. The misty drizzle that began falling, as promised, early in the day helped firefighters extend the containment line to 19 percent by late Sunday.
"You've heard, 'Make hay while the sun shines,'" said Doug Anderson, public information officer for the National Forest Service. "Well, we make fire line when it rains."
Though the rain is too light to soak the tinder-dry forest, it prevents the light-fuel-like grass and leaves from igniting. Even more rain is expected later next week.
"That's a big positive," Anderson said.
The weather has been getting increasingly cool and damp throughout the week as the number of people brought in to control the fire has grown. That number is expected to reach about 600 by early this week.
The fire made little or no progress on Saturday, even with a wind that gusted out of the south up to 27 miles per hour. That's largely because the Forest Service has brought in four giant air tankers that scoop thousands of gallons of water out of lakes and dump it anywhere the fire starts to move. Anderson said they pounded the northeast section of the fire especially hard, because of fears that the south wind could push it toward the blowdown area 6 or 7 miles north. There, vast acres of downed trees left from a 1999 windstorm could create a massive conflagration.
"If it gets up there, we will have to formulate a whole new plan," said Irv Leach, operations director for the south branch of the fire.
On the southern flank, outside the wilderness area, bulldozers and other heavy equipment knocked down trees and brush to create a line that the fire could not cross.
At the daily community meeting in Isabella, Minn., on Sunday, operational directors pointed to a map of the fire that showed a few inches of black line signifying where it's been contained.
The people around Isabella, who have been at greatest risk, were relieved by the rain, the southerly wind and the reassurance from operational leaders that the air tankers could knock back any fire that threatened to run.
"But it's not over," said Rae Ann Debeltz, a resident. "If the wind changes, who knows?"
As of Sunday, Isabella also became host to a "spike camp" for crews and equipment because Ely was overwhelmed. Starting Sunday night, the crews from the south side of the fire will eat and sleep in the same community they are charged with protecting.
On the north side, more crews have been sent into the Boundary Waters in canoes to fight the other flank in the heart of the wilderness area. They are cutting a fire line from west to east along the perimeter of the fire. Leach said that they may start using explosives instead of hand tools to clear a path down to the soil. He said that would do far less harm to the trees because chainsaws and hand tools destroy their roots, while explosives simply clear away the debris from around them.
Explosives also work much faster, he said.
As of Sunday, the fire had blackened 93,898 acres, or about 147 square miles, almost all of it in the wilderness area. Officials said that makes it the eighth largest fire in the state's history. There have been no deaths or injuries and only one building -- a small cabin owned by the Minnesota Department of Resources -- has been destroyed. So far, costs to put out the blaze have totaled $3.1 million.
Even with the favorable weather and subdued smoldering, it could take a couple of months to fully extinguish the blaze.
"I hope they learned their lesson," said Debeltz, reflecting the widespread frustration with the Forest Service for letting the fire burn instead of putting it out before it made its big run a week ago. "Any fire should be put out."
Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394