BWCA firefighters dig in for long haulby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
On the edge of the Boundary Waters, firefighters breathed a sigh of relief Thursday as the Cavity Lake Fire grew only slightly. But they're digging in for a long stay.
Gunflint Trail, Minn. — The fire's been burning for a week, and fire officials say they're just getting to know it. On Wednesday, it moved east and threatened the cabins and resorts along the Gunflint Trail.
Then it was brought up short by already-burned areas, where the U.S. Forest Service had set prescribed burns specifically for this purpose.
Fire Information Officer Mike Martin says those burns were strategically set close to the Gunflint Trail.
"There are places you can see the prescribed burns from the roads," he says. "From the air it's very noticeable, the contrast between the blowdown, the prescribed burns, and the remaining forest. It's very evident the burns are acting as buffers right now from the fire to the Gunflint Trail. They are serving their purpose very well."
Thursday there were more than 200 people fighting the fire, still mostly from the air, although some ground crews attacked the northwestern corner after the flames dropped down to one-to-three feet high.
Fire Information Officer Marty Christiansen calls this fire a "sleeping giant."
"The fire burns so hot that it's burning in the duff, or the material right on the ground down in amongst the rocks," he says. "It's burning up root systems, and so as you look over the landscape you see many, many, smokes coming up. And close to the line where we stop the fire it's going to require that we put those all out."
That means crews will be here for a while, perhaps till mid-August, perhaps later. So much depends on the weather.
So some crews are setting up a base camp for up to a thousand people. They've leveled a gravel pit about two miles away from the fire. There'll be a semi-truck for showers, tarps to shade an impromptu dining hall, and hundreds of small tents the firefighters bring themselves.
People are flying in from all over the country to help. Chris Morris is a forester in North Carolina. He says fighting fire in a wilderness area presents unusual problems. He says it's strange to send crews out in canoes.
"At home we usually plow a fire out with bulldozers," Morris says. "We'll have a plow on the back of them. It's basically like plowing up a garden and stopping the spread, and most of the time we go home. There's not a lot of monitoring of it. We don't stay on a fire long, where this'll take monitoring until, I guess, your snows and rains start in fall, there's going to be people here."
While the planes fly overhead and the green Forest Service trucks prowl the roads, life goes on pretty much as usual along the Gunflint Trail.
Ardis David has had a cabin here for 30 years. She says this fire hasn't frightened her nearly as much as one that threatened her brand new cabin in 1976. She's got a map of Sea Gull Lake on her wall.
"The Forest Service has put a spot here, I forget what they call it," she says. "And if the fire ever reached there, then we were going to go. It has never reached there because they have kept it controlled here. So I really admire them for what they have done, compared to the forest fire I lived through. Absolutely, they are doing a very good job."
David says she didn't even make plans to evacuate this time. That could change if the weather gets really hot and windy. But for the moment, people along the Gunflint, firefighters included, feel safe.