Thursday, April 9, 2020
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Firefighters work to contain BWCA blaze
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Smoke from a fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area mingles with brilliance of the setting sun. (Photo by Bob Baker/Boundary Waters blog)
Additional fire crews arrived Monday at a blaze burning in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The fire, near Alpine Lake, burned more than 400 acres over the weekend near the Gunflint Trail. It's the biggest wildfire there since a massive blowdown in 1999. Despite the fire, it's been business as usual for most outfitters and visitors to Minnesota's canoe country.

Ely, Minn. — Campers reported the fire Saturday near the western side of Seagull Lake, which is a popular entry point into the one million-acre wilderness.

The fire, believed to have been caused by lightning, spread rapidly in Saturday's hot and windy weather, burning through dried jackpine and blown down timber.

Firefighters hit it hard from the air, led by three CL-215 firefighting aircraft. Gil Knight is with the Forest Service at the fire center on Seagull Lake. He says the fire had not progressed much Monday.

"We just don't have any real active flame at this point in time. Things look pretty good right now," said Knight.

That's despite winds that have been gusting to 20 mph.

Knight says new satellite mapping shows the fire has burned about 485 acres -- less than the 650 acres initially reported.

The fire remains at least a mile from private properties, and a couple of miles from the homes and resorts on the Gunflint Trail. Knight says the Gunflint is not at risk right now.

He says crews are visiting the private properties and monitoring the fire's position.

"We have no indications at this moment in time that we are contemplating even pre-evacuation. We're just making everybody aware of what's going on," Knight said.

Mike Prom is an outfitter on Saganaga Lake, at the far northern end of the Gunflint Trail. With the wrong winds, his business could be in the fire's path. Prom says he's not worried yet.

"So far it's pretty much business as usual," said Prom. "There was one little bit of smoke one day. Otherwise it's been a pretty small fire."

Prom's Voyageurs Canoe Outfitters is still sending visitors into the wilderness. He says, so far, the firefighting has been more an inconvenience than the actual fire.

So far it's pretty much business as usual. There was one little bit of smoke one day. Otherwise it's been a pretty small fire.
- Mike Prom, Gunflint Trail outfitter

"The only rerouting that we've done is to keep them out of the way of the airplanes. And the Forest Service has notified us where the planes are refilling. So, they've closed one portage to keep people away from the stretch," said Prom.

Some campsites close to the fire have also been closed.

Most resorts and many homeowners have installed sprinkler systems that, in 24 hours, can pump the equivalent of two inches of rain. Prom says he's running his sprinklers as a precaution, to protect his buildings and property.

"We run them periodically through the year anyway, any time there's fire danger or if it's dry out," Prom said. "But just as precautionary. We've all been running them here."

Bob Baker's Gunflint Pines resort is some 12 miles down the trail. He says he thinks he's safe enough there, but he's still keeping an eye out.

"We can see smoke. We can see the column of smoke from here easily," Baker said.

And when the wind's right, he can smell the burning wood. Baker says the risk of fire is something they think about and have planned for.

"The fire departments, the Forest Service -- they've all been prepared, to get places prepared for it as far as getting sprinkler systems going, and getting the news out there what's going on," said Baker. "So we've had time to get ready for it. And there's been time to get the crews here."

This is not the first wildfire for these long-time resorters. A larger fire, known as the Sag corridor fire, hit near here 10 years ago. The risk of fire is something they think about and plan for.

"We've dealt with it before," said Baker. "And knowing where it is, and the country it's in, hopefully everything will be just fine."

So far that's been the case. With a large number of ground crews, three large water-drop aircraft, and a little luck from the weather, this fire can be contained within days.

But the weather's the wildcard. Tuesday looks to be another hot one with variable winds.