Roads closed, some areas evacuated as BWCAW fire spreads outside wilderness
ISABELLA -- The Pagami Creek forest fire exploded in size Monday to cover more than 16,000 acres, spreading outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for the first time and heading closer to homes and cabins.
The fire, which more than tripled from Sunday's 4,500-acre estimate, has forced Lake County and Superior National Forest officials to close several county and Forest Service roads north of Minnesota Highway 1 between Ely and Isabella, and some residents and campers are being asked to evacuate the area.
Forest Service fire specialist Tim Norman told a crowd of more than 100 people Monday night in Isabella that the service "didn't have what we needed today" to contain the fire.
More than 60 firefighters from multi-agency fire crews continue to battle the blaze on the ground, and five more 20-person teams from the national system of wildland fire crews are on the way, said Becca Manlove, spokeswoman for the interagency team battling the fire. Officials said it has been difficult putting together the usual "overhead team" of national fire experts because so many fires are burning in Texas and elsewhere.
It's also harder to get firefighting aircraft. Two large state-owned water-dropping CL-215 airplanes continue to fight the blaze, along with one smaller water-scooping plane and a small helicopter. A large water-dropping helicopter also has been ordered from outside the state.
"But when the winds are as strong as they have been, and are supposed to be, there's really nothing you can do to stop it," said Mark Van Every, Kawishiwi District ranger for the Superior National Forest.
In eight hours, the fire, pushed by wind from the west gusting to 40 mph, raced more than 16 miles across some of the most popular spots in the canoe area, including the routes that begin at Lake One and Sawbill Landing. By 6 p.m., the fire was confirmed to be outside of the wilderness, brushing Forest Center and heading east into Cook County.
Ash was falling in Grand Marais and the large smoke plume could be seen from the North Shore from a hazy Two Harbors and north.
Emergency calls came in during the evening with people asking about canoers who were overdue for return from the BWCAW.
By nightfall, people living between Isabella and the southern border of the canoe area, mostly along the Tomahawk Road, were told to leave the area. More people were expected to be asked to evacuate today if the wind turns and pushes the fire south.
Lake County Sheriff's Office deputies and search and rescue members formed 10 teams at the Isabella Community Center beginning at 3 p.m. Monday. They fanned out to warn residents about the possible danger and told them about the 7 p.m. informational meeting at the center.
Sheriff Carey Johnson made the assignments to officers to contact everyone who could possibly be in the area along the "maze" of forest roads surrounding Isabella. Lake County is also trying to reach people by phone to warn them of any impending danger.
The Finland community center has been set up to house those forced to flee their homes.
Norman called the fire "erratic" and stubborn, forging through bog areas that usually dampen the intensity and staying ahead of fire crews. Float planes rescued people off Insula Lake as the fire hopped from island to island.
The Forest Service has raised the response to the fire to "Type 1," meaning the most experienced crews will be coming in to suppress the fire and make fire breaks. The Forest Service had used a containment approach before continued hot, dry and windy weather conditions over the weekend allowed the fire to grow.
Thunderstorms peppered the BWCA late Monday afternoon but offered mostly lightning and little rain. At least two spot fires were attributed to the storms, one to the west of the main fire near Highway 2 and the other near Seagull Lake off the Gunflint Trail to the north and east. Crews fighting the Pagami Creek fire went to those fires because people and property were in danger, Van Every said.
This time of year, winds are expected from the south, not the west, VanEvery told the residents Monday. The "unusual weather pattern" has fire crews on their heels. "This is very much a wind-driven event," he said. "The fire's been moving faster than we can."
"We're in a defensive mode," Norman said.
The "precautionary evacuation" area for residents and cabin owners included Lake County Road 7 from Four Mile Grade to Kawishiwi Lake; Cramer Road from Four Mile Grade to Kawishiwi Lake; Wanless Road from County Road 7 to Homestead Lake.
Smoke from the fire is obscuring so much of the ground that pilots Monday were unable to give an accurate description of how much land has been burned over.
"But it's safe to say it's likely significantly more than 16,000 acres," said Manlove, of the interagency firefighting team.
Wilderness rangers escorted more than 120 campers out of wilderness lakes to the east and south of the fire path Sunday and Monday to get them out of harm's way.
It's the largest wildfire in Minnesota since May 2007 when the Ham Lake fire burned over 76,000 acres in Minnesota and Ontario, destroying 163 buildings along and near the Gunflint Trail.
The Pagami Creek fire started with a lightning strike Aug. 18, smoldered for a week or so and then grew to 130 acres on its own. Fire crews burned an additional 2,000 acres intentionally around the fire to keep it from growing into populated areas, especially north and west. But the fire continues to grow south and east and now has burned over 25 square miles.
Fires in the wilderness generally are allowed to run their course because they renew the forest naturally. But officials have been leery of this fire from the start because of drought conditions and they now are trying to stop it as soon as possible.
A fire ban remains in effect for the BWCAW during the day, with fires allowed only after 6 p.m.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources imposed a fire ban in all areas of northern Minnesota. The temporary burning restrictions mean the state will not give out burning permits for burning brush or yard waste until conditions improve. Small campfires in developed campfire pits or structures are allowed.