Upbeat but vigilant at Cavity Lakeby Stephanie Hemphill, Minnesota Public Radio
Officials leading the fight against the Cavity Lake fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness offered residents some good news Friday, and some words of caution.
Seagull Lake, Minn. — The fire seems to be moving away from the cabins and resorts along the Gunflint Trail. But the blaze, which covers some 34 square miles, is not about to burn out.
People living and visiting here along the Gunflint feel free to plan the usual summer activities this weekend -- fishing, berry picking, canoeing.
That's because officials have told them the Cavity Lake fire appears to have stopped moving east toward the trail.
Eric Christiansen is a fire behavior analyst with the national team that just took over managing the fire. He says the weather is cooperating, with light winds and decent humidity. A series of prescribed burns set by the Forest Service after the 1999 blowdown are doing the job they were designed for.
"Right now, we're not predicting any appreciable further spread here on the east side," Christiansen says. "It will continue to chew its way down through the blowdown here on the southwest side, and that will continue until we're able to pinch it off."
But it's far too early for anyone to let down their guard, according to Mike Lohrey, the incident commander for this fire.
"You're probably going to be living with smoke until the season-ending event at the least," Lohrey says. "And at the worst case it will be continuously chomping toward Ely throughout that period."
What he means by the season-ending event is fall rain, or even winter snow. That's how long this fire will probably burn.
The reason, of course, is the millions of trees that snapped like matchsticks by that 1999 blowdown.
As the fire is burning in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, there are other challenges. Normally, motors are not allowed here. For the fire, they're making an exception. Planes are flying overhead dumping water on the fire, and crews are beginning to clear landing areas for helicopters to ferry in firefighters and supplies.
But they can't use backhoes or other mechanized equipment that's normally helpful in a fire. There's no way to bring them in to this wilderness, which is a crazy quilt of water and land and piled-up tree trunks.
So teams are using various strategies, depending on how the fire is behaving and what the ground offers.
For instance, at the northern tip, crews have been digging up the soil and wetting it down to create what they call a "line" to contain the fire. But Fire Information Officer Mike Martin says all that work doesn't guarantee the fire will stop there.
"That means we'll have line around the fire on the north. There's always the potential for spotting with a southwest wind, but this gives us a point to start from, and then we can build off of it and go further into the interior and cool that edge down," Martin says.
To the west, crews have been eyeing a chain of lakes that might make a good barrier as the fire moves that way.
"We can go indirect where we back off away from the flame edge, go out to a topography point where we feel we can make a stand, and conduct either a back-burn or put in various kinds of lines, and work off a point of our choosing rather than the fire's choice," Martin says.
For the last two days the winds have been light, from the west and northwest. But the fire is pushing against the wind, moving west away from the prescribed burns along the Gunflint and into the miles of dry timber from the blowdown.
As it heads toward Ely and its resorts and outfitters, some 40 miles away, officials there are beginning to react.
"We're not real concerned about a threat to the people or developments in the Ely area," says Mark Van Every, district ranger for the western part of the Superior National Forest. "We're more concerned about the impacts to visitors and impacts to the businesses that depend on those visitors."
Van Every will be meeting with outfitters soon to set up ways to warn campers and canoeists when portages and entry points are closed.
Officials have closed 11 entry points and 35 portages at the eastern edge, and outfitters are helping their customers plan alternate routes.
- All Things Considered, 07/21/2006, 5:19 p.m.