Pawlenty flies over Gunflint fire; speaks to residentsby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Grand Marais, Minn. — Gov. Tim Pawlenty expressed thanks Tuesday to everyone involved in fighting the fire on the Gunflint Trail.
After flying over the fire, Pawlenty told residents of the area the good thing about Minnesotans is they rally around each other every time there is a natural disaster.
He says Minnesotans have an unbroken tradition of helping each other in times of natural disasters, and that will happen again with this fire.
The Ham Lake fire roared out of control over the weekend, forcing a major evacuation. No one was injured but dozens of structures were destroyed.
Officials ordered people to leave the area along the last seven miles of the Gunflint Trail -- from the Seagull guard station north to the end of the two-lane, 60-mile highway that leads into the forest from Grand Marais.
The Cook County Sheriff's Department expanded its evacuation order Monday afternoon to areas north and west of the Cross River, toward the end of the trail.
State and local officials talked to evacuated residents in Grand Marais Monday evening about the situation.
Tony Faras lives on the south side of Seagull Lake, and he has a harrowing fire story. At one point Sunday, he was trapped at his house. The fire had hit the Gunflint Trail, and for several hours no one could get out. Faras was able to escape to safety late in the afternoon.
"It was scary, and as close to something that I wouldn't want to experience again," said Faras. "I drove down through [on Highway 5], both sides of the road were burning, and trees were tumbling -- nothing in front of me. But I had to turn the air conditioning on. It was pretty hot in the truck."
Faras learned Monday evening his home was one of many directly in the path of the fire. Flames had blown right through the developed eastern side of Seagull Lake.
But sheriff's deputies were able to give Faras a bit of good news Monday -- his house was OK.
"Two boats and motors were toasted pretty bad, but every thing else was saved," Faras said. "It burned pretty hard, but right around the structures, they say, it's like a green oasis."
Faras's home is protected by an all-property sprinkler system. A propane fueled pump sends a powerful spray of water over the house and immediate surroundings. Faras said that, and a metal roof, saved his property.
"You've got huge sparks flying with everything burning, especially when that fire was blowing the way it did," Faras said. "You can imagine what's falling on roofs. We have a friend that built a log place down the line that had a cedar roof, and it went up in a puff of smoke last night."
Fire officials say they had more than 90 structures to protect in and around Seagull and Saganaga lakes. But they lost about one-third to the fire. Many of the structures were homes, while others are garages or other outbuildings.
High winds and extremely dry conditions pushed the fire over the weekend to more than 16,000 acres. It moved with astonishing speed, and it just wouldn't quit. Mike Aultman, with the Forest Service, says the weather is to blame.
"Here in Minnesota ... normally we have good humidity to cover this time of year. Our fires lay down normally. They don't burn very well at night. It's a good time to take some action on them and get something done. This fire burned all night long," said Aultman.
That kept more than 100 firefighters busy trying to protect the buildings, all too often in vain. Firefighters reported flaming debris lighting the forest one-third of a mile ahead of the main blaze, and even crossing bodies of water.
Aultman says the extremely dry conditions, ample fuel, and strong winds have combined to create a very active fire.
"I've been working in (the) fire game now for 27 years, and this is probably some of the worst fire behavior I've seen in that time period," Aultman said.
The Cook County Sheriff's Department has been surveying each of the properties to report back whether it was fire damaged. For some people, they're able to tell them their homes are OK. For others, they had to report there had been some damage.
Worried residents wondered just what some damage meant. Sheriff's Deputy Leif Lunde tried to explain.
"If we tell (you) your house is not OK, that means that the damage (is) somewhere between very substantial and completely destroyed," Lunde said. "There are houses up there, all that's left is the foundation, and there are houses with varying degrees of fire damage to it. Also, part of that is subjective. What I would consider substantial, you may consider severe. What I consider severe, you may consider minor."
Fire management moves up another notch Tuesday. What's called a Level 1 management team is arriving from Montana to take over the firefight. They work the nation's most complex fires.
More fire crews are expected to push the total number of firefighters over 200. There are more bulldozers on the way.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty put the National Guard on standby on Monday, and offered more assistance on Tuesday.
"We've told them anything they need from us -- helicopters, people, personnel, equipment, money -- we'll be happy to make anything available that they need," he said.
The Guard will supplement an air force that already includes three helicopters, three water-drop airplanes and a heavy air tanker.
Authorities said they believed the fire started at a campsite on the northwest corner of Ham Lake, just outside the BWCA. It was reported around 11:30 a.m. Saturday. By Sunday evening, it had reached the Sea Gull Lake area within the BWCA.
A 1999 windstorm toppled millions of trees in and near the BWCA, and Berglund said some of the fire had reached the blowdown area, though previous controlled burns have reduced fuel loads in that direction. Sunday's evacuation was part of a plan developed following the storm.
Northeastern Minnesota has been in a drought since last summer, and the federal Climate Prediction Center lists the area as being in severe drought now.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)