Fires continue burning in BWCAby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
A fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the largest in years, continues to spread. It now threatens to force some property owners off their land.
Gunflint Trail — The Cavity Lake fire is burning around the western and southern sides of Seagull Lake. Seagull is a large lake and popular entry point for the canoe wilderness, at the far northern end of the Gunflint Trail.
The fire was discovered Saturday, burning in a remote and virtually inaccessible part of the forest where a massive blowdown storm leveled mature trees seven years ago.
Hot, dry winds and a shortage of rain have combined to quickly push the fire to 4,000 acres Sunday, and more than 13,000 acres by midmorning Monday.
Fire officials talked to several dozen area property owners at a Seagull Lake boat landing Monday morning. Across the water, yellow grey smoke billowed above the trees to the south, the west, and the north. Doug Meidtke said firefighters told him Sunday that the fire was putting up flames 50 feet high.
"They were observing embers -- birchbark embers coming down, landing in unburned areas, and within moments the trees were torching," says Meidtke. "This was the kind of fire behavior that they have said they've rarely seen in their whole career. So what we're dealing with out here is some of the more volatile fuel in the country."
Sunday's winds blew strong from the southwest. On Monday the winds were blowing out of the northwest, and that pushed the fire southeast of Seagull Lake, into an area where the forest service had held prescribed burns in 2003.
With those areas already burned, there was little risk the fire would be able to continue that direction. But the winds were expected back from the southwest on Tuesday.
Fire official John Stegmeir pointed to a large map on the side of a local fire hall, and explained to the residents there could be a point where they'll be asked to evacuate. Lines on the map showed the fire's edge, about one mile west from a point -- called trigger points -- that are critical to fire officials.
"That will indicate to us -- that we had pre-planned when a fire got to there, that we're going to think seriously about evacuation," said Stegmeir. "Between the sheriff's office, who's in charge of the evacuation, and us, who can feed him information about what the fire's going to do at that time, we make a decision at that time."
So far, residents have not yet been asked to leave. But Seagull Lake has been closed to canoes and other boats, and anyone camping in the area has been asked to leave. Many campsites and portages are closed, as are two long-distance hiking trails.
Dan Bauman, the Gunflint Trail's fire chief, talked about the very real possibility some residents or resorts may have to evacuate, if the fire gets too close. And he reminded residents of what they should do if they're asked to go.
"Leave all your doors unlocked. Lights on. Electricity on. If you've got a ladder -- ladder up. If you've got a garden hose, make sure it's on, ready to go. And put a white flag on your fire number -- a white t-shirt, something white. That tells us that you're out and your building and structures are ready for a triage," Bauman said.
On Sunday, the fire took a dramatic turn as it hopped across Seagull Lake, skipping from the southwest to the northeast on a series of islands.
James Raml lives near the shore on the eastern side of Seagull. He says it roared across the islands with a noise like a freight train.
"It vaporized some of the islands. When that downdraft went though it became a gaseous island, and it just vaporized them."
Raml questioned why the Forest Service didn't hit the fire harder Sunday from the air. But fire officials said they had to put the aircraft were they were most needed, and there are other fires burning in Minnesota, including another fire in the Boundary Waters.
More than 150 people were assigned to fight the fire by Monday. In the air, two of the large CL-215 water scoop airplanes were dropped water onto and ahead of the flames. A water-drop helicopter was also at work.
The airplanes were both wetting the woods ahead of the fire to slow it, and actually fighting the flames with water drops. On the ground, crews were staying out of the main fire, and working instead ahead of the fire to keep that area moist.
Firefighters are trying to slow this fire, and to keep it from the homes and businesses barely a mile away, on the Gunflint Trail.
Officials had warned about massive fire in this area ever since the July 1999 blowdown storm. They've tried to dice up the forest by setting controlled fires that could slow a bigger fire. This fire might show whether that strategy will work.
- All Things Considered, 07/17/2006, 5:23 p.m.