ISABELLA, Minn. – Half a dozen water bombers flew in a coordinated line Tuesday afternoon as they scooped water from Sand Lake, returned to the smoky plumes north of Greenwood Lake and drenched the burning forest. Then they returned to the lake, again and again, in a synchronized dance as they tried to contain the fast-growing fire in the Superior National Forest that started Sunday afternoon.
But the fire continued to move north and was now edging west, said Joanna Gilkeson, public information officer for the Superior National Forest. By Tuesday evening, it had grown from 2,000 acres to 3,200.
"Dropping water from the sky is the thing that is really saving us right now," Gilkeson said. But she said the fire "really kicked up" late in the afternoon as winds fanned its growth.
As seen from a small plane, aircraft dropped water and fire retardant on parts of the vast smoky forest, and a long swath of scorched earth gave way to patchwork brown and green within the confines of the fire's reach.
Two days of gusty winds and continued drought conditions fueled the fire's rapid spread. So far, no known structures have been lost, Gilkeson said.
The Greenwood fire, about 15 miles southwest of Isabella, threatened cabins, homes and recreational sites, and has led to the evacuation of at least 75 homes and cabins by the Lake Co. Sheriff's Office.
Lake County Emergency Management opened a shelter at the Finland Community Center for the evacuees.
Peter McClelland, who owns White Wilderness Sled Dog Adventures in Isabella, was among those forced to leave their homes and businesses. Several volunteers helped McClelland quickly ready his 100 sled dogs for temporary homes Monday.
"We always go into the summer with a fire evacuation plan, and we had a scare with the Pagami Creek Fire," he said, which began 10 years ago Aug. 18 in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and grew to 93,000 acres.
When news of the fire broke Sunday, McClelland said, the musher community was "put on notice." Sure enough, the Lake County sheriff stopped by Monday to warn him of the encroaching fire.
Dogs were sent with friends living as far away as Togo in Itasca County, McClelland said, and 50 went to his kennel near Ely. He said that last he heard, the fire was 3 miles south of his property.
"The dogs are part of our family," McClelland said. "They are all safe and happy."
Another nearby sled dog owner also evacuated his animals, McClelland said.
Evacuations were in effect around McDougal Lake, Sand Lake, the county Hwy. 2 corridor and north of state Hwy 1. Parts of Hwy. 2 and 1 were closed. The U.S. Forest Service also closed a section of the Superior National Forest reaching to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
The cause of the fire was under investigation.
Meanwhile, other fires continued in the Superior National Forest and the BWCA. The forecast for the next few days shows near-critical fire conditions, with expected high temperatures and continued winds.
Rising humidity was expected to offer some relief.