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Boundary Waters fire update: Little change, but officials concerned about weather

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (left) and congressional representatives Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Chip Cravaack spoke to the media in Ely on Friday at the Superior National Forest District Ranger Station about the efforts to combat the Pagami Creek fire. (Photo courtesy Pagami Creek Fire incident command center)

Superior National Forest officials on Friday banned all types of outdoor fires across the entire forest as they expect an influx of campers and hunters this weekend for the opening days of the grouse hunting and archery deer hunting seasons.

All campfires and other wood fires and charcoal grills are banned until further notice, including in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Gas stoves and gas grills are allowed.

Meanwhile, outside federal lands in Cook, Lake, Koochiching, Itasca and northern St. Louis counties, campfires or recreational fires are allowed only in a designated fire receptacle at a home, cabin, campground or resort. Fireworks are banned in rural or forested areas of the Northeastern counties and no burning permits will be issued.

Officials are concerned that more people spending more time in the woods could mean additional fires across the drought-stricken region. The forecast for Ely today calls for sunny skies and temperatures rising to the mid-60s, with south winds gusting to 25 mph. That has officials fighting the Pagami Creek fire a bit concerned, although rain is forecast for Sunday.

While south winds would push the fire deeper into the wilderness and away from people, they also could kick the fire back into high gear after it mostly slogged along since Tuesday. That northward movement also could push the fire into the area of dead trees left by the July 4, 1999, windstorm.

The fire moved very little on Friday and is now officially 8 percent contained, after being totally uncontained, said Lisa Radosevich-Craig, a spokeswoman for the interagency team fighting the fire.

The fire is estimated to have burned across 93,472 acres, down from recent estimates of 100,000 acres, due to better mapping efforts. There are 510 firefighters battling the blaze, along with aircraft and heavy equipment.

Politicians review effort

Meanwhile Friday, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack toured the fire area by air and attended a briefing at the Kawishiwi Ranger Station in Ely.

Dayton said the state would offer whatever help it could to protect homes, cabins and businesses threatened by the fire.

Cravaack was quoted in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Friday criticizing the Forest Service decision to allow the fire to burn within the wilderness in August as "nuts." But after the tour and talking with Forest Service fire officials Friday, Cravaack softened his stand.

"Now is not the time to be pointing fingers," Cravaack said. "Right now is the time to learn lessons from this fire. Let's make sure we learn from this one, and let's prevent the next one."

Franken, however, said that instead of being the exception to the rule, the Pagami Creek fire may be the "exception that changes the rule" of allowing natural fires to burn out on their own.

The blaze started with a lightning strike on Aug. 18 and smoldered for some time. Fire crews then intentionally burned another 1,800 acres to act as a fire break to the wildfire. The Forest Service opted to let the fire creep along to regenerate the wilderness' forest and help remove fuel for larger fires.

All seemed well until last weekend when record temperatures and gusty winds fanned the fire into a major conflagration that spread slightly outside the BWCAW and threatened some buildings.

"Maybe that decision should have been made earlier, to start containing the fire," Klobuchar said, later adding that she was "humbled by the heroism of the firefighters and thankful that no lives have been lost.