Wind causes more concerns along Gunflint Trailby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Strong winds created some spectacular fire on Sunday on the Ham Lake fire, burning near the Gunflint Trail. But fire officials say they were able to keep the flames from reaching homes and resorts on Gunflint and Loon Lakes. A fire break created Saturday with a controlled burn held, although fire did carry across the break in a couple of places. Where it did, firefighters quickly knocked it back with heavy water drops from aircraft.
Grand Marais, Minn. — At one time "crown" fire in the 80- to 100-foot range was seen on Horseshoe Island on Saganaga Lake. Fire advanced in several places, including some near the fire's southernmost finger near Rush Lake, but, according to Cook County chief deputy Leif Lunde. An expected evacuation in the area, near Poplar Lake was not necessary.
However, Lunde cautions that the winds will eventually shift back to the west. If the firefighters haven't had time to improve fire breaks on the east side of that "finger" of fire, flames could spread from there and again force an evacuation of the Poplar Lake area, near the center of the Gunflint Trail.
Lunde does say, however, that the expected weather, combined with the progress of firefighting, leads him to believe it may be possible to let homeowners past the roadblocks in mid to late week. It would not be a lifting of the mandatory evacuation area, but it would allow people to get up there to see their properties, and to bring insurance adjusters up for a look.
Earlier, officials estimated the fire was 15-percent contained, although that number could be revised after fire crews report in later.
The upper Gunflint Trail was crawled with firefighters on Saturday. Beside the highway, near Loon Lake, the fire still burns in single trees and flare-ups that seem to erupt out of nowhere from the mass of blackened poles that was once a pine forest. In places, the forest floor is just grey ash. And every now and then - with no warning - another charred tree collapses to the ground - its roots burned away by the hot fire that whipped through here Thursday.
Just off the trail, a volunteer fire crew from near Grand Marais hosed down another flaming snag -- a tree that kicks out a burst of black smoke and orange flame.
There are crews like this up and down the trail, with names on their trucks from across the Midwest - Lutsen, Silver Bay, Twin Cities suburbs and South Dakota's Pine Ridge reservation.
The noise of the firefights comes from every direction. Chainsaws echo from miles away. Fire trucks idle their diesel engines while yellow-clad firefighters attack the flare-ups with water and saws.
Nearby, Dan Dallas has a big map spread on the hood of his SUV. He's pointing at the spot where the fire charged across the Gunflint Trail on Thursday.
"It pushed a big wall of flame essentially about, about eight miles, down back in, right here, and went from north to south right behind us here," he said, pointing to the map.
Dallas is the fire crew's operations sections chief, and it's his job to direct a backfire to create a space between the fire and the developed areas to the west.
Overhead there's an air war underway, led by the heavy tankers, which are painting the line on Dallas's map with a red chemical fire retardant.
"At this time, what we're trying to do, and all the air operations -- everything you see going on here -- what we're trying to do is we've prepared a fire line that goes from Gunflint Lake, across the ridge, between Gunflint, Loon Lake, and goes around; comes out right in the highway, right behind us, about a quarter mile down the road."
Ever since this fire began, it's been driven by the wind, which has whipped from every direction, nudging the blaze in a big circle around Gunflint Lake. Firefighters had managed to save most of the homes and resorts near Gunflint and Loon lakes, including the historic Gunflint Lodge. But they knew that the wind on Sunday would challenge those structures again.
Before setting the backfire, bulldozers cleared a wide path. The airplanes follow with repeated water and chemical drops. Dallas says they intend to make sure the fire they set stays where they want it.
"This sort of thing, and the reason we're doing all this preparation, is if you just went out there, of course, and burned it, and hoped that all the fire went that way, the winds switches on you again. (If) anything happens, you get spot fires behind you from embers flying up off the trees that flare out, the fire's behind you, and it's just heading toward the houses again."
The idea is to create "hard-black," a wide section that's completely burned clean of fuel.
"The purpose of it is to push the fire from where we don't want it, over to the active fire line, take all the fuel out," according to Dallas. "We'll put the remaining fire out, mop up that line, and then it's protecting those homes back there."
By late afternoon, things began to look dicey. A helicopter torch had malfunctioned. Then the winds began to get, as they say, "squirrely," blowing in different directions. But this backfire was important, and by evening, it was finally underway.
On Sunday, despite increasing winds, the Ham Lake fire was considered 15-percent contained. That means a lot more work for firefighters in the days ahead. For Dan Dallas there may be many more backfires on the fire lines north and west of Grand Marais.
- Morning Edition, 05/14/2007, 7:20 a.m.