Thursday, April 9, 2020
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Gunflint Trail fire may burn for weeks
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Carolyn Caufman of Duluth was joining friends for a trip that would take them right past the smoky area on the far shore on Tuesday. (MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher)
Dozens of the people who live and work on the Gunflint Trail met with fire officials Tuesday to learn about the progress and problems fighting a nearby forest fire. The Alpine Lake fire is burning on the west side of Seagull Lake, just a short distance from resorts, homes and cabins on the Gunflint Trail. Residents heard that this still small fire may burn for some time.

Alpine Lake, Minn. — Fire officials gathered the residents within view of the fire, although on Tuesday the fire wasn't putting on much of a show. Most of the spectacle was provided by fire-fighting airplanes.

A Colorado-based tanker joined the fight, dropping a red mist of repellent on trees, just beyond the far shoreline. Smaller airplanes buzzed overhead to monitor the burn and pick targets for the tanker.

Fire Operations Chief Greg Peterson says the day was much different from Monday, when winds kicked up and the fire grew to 690 acres.

"We knew it was going to be a tough day, and we succeeded. We were successful in that tough day," Peterson said.

But Tuesday was much cooler; the winds had died and a little rain had fallen overnight. It was a big enough change to allow firefighters on the scene. Until now it had been battled by water drops from the air.

The calm could have been misleading. Fire behavior expert Doug Miedtke says a fire's temperament can change quickly.

"The rain did give us just a little lull in activity. It's not going to last long, though. If we get no more rain tonight, or tomorrow, or the next few days, the fire will just kind of gradually build and wake up again," Miedtke said.

A small corner of the fire might soon be contained, but the fire is a long way from being whipped. Incident Commander Jim Hinds says the fight will go on for some time.

"For right now, at this point in time, given the weather forecast that we have, we think we're going to be here at least two more weeks. And, depending on the weather... that will dictate how difficult the task may be," Hinds said.

The fire is burning through forest peppered with trees blown down in the July 1999 windstorm. That tangle is hard to get through, and it burns hot.

"We're nowhere near the end of this. And, blowdown is a very difficult thing for us to work with. We saw that yesterday, if you watched the smoke columns build when it worked into that fuel," said Hinds.

The main goal, he says, is to keep fire from spreading to the northeast -- towards the homes and resorts on the Gunflint Trail. Second to that, they'd like to keep it from crawling to the south or west, which would let it spread into even thicker blown-down forest.

Property owners wanted to know how long they should run fire sprinklers, designed to keep buildings and property almost fireproof. District Ranger Dennis Neitzke says the sprinklers should run 24 hours before a fire arrives.

I don't think the fire's as big as many have been. I was up here in '95. I had ashes on my tent. So, this is a piece of cake.
- Canoeist Carolyn Caufman

"When is the fire going to get there? That's what we don't know -- if the fire will get there, or when," said Neitzke. "So the question you have to kind of answer for yourself. What is it doing out there? What does the weather look like?"

Neitzke says they should monitor the media and a regional Web site that will carry updates.

Residents and resort owners were concerned, but there was no sense of panic. So far just a few campsites and one portage have been closed to the public.

Ron Lewis of Blaine owns a seasonal cabin on the Seagull River. He watched a fire 30 years ago burn almost up to his door.

"A fire's a fire. It's a bad thing. It scares you," said Lewis. "But it seems like it's kind of under control. As long as the winds stay down, I think they'll mop this thing up pretty quick."

There were even canoeists launching onto Seagull Lake. Carolyn Caufman of Duluth was joining friends for a trip that would take them right past the smoky area on the far shore.

"I don't have a problem. I don't think the fire's as big as many have been. I was up here in '95. I had ashes on my tent. So, this is a piece of cake," Caufman said.

Still, the officials say the threat is very real. The region is short of rainfall and dry. Several small fires have been put out lately, and there's one burning now in Canada, north of the Boundary Waters.

They're banning campfires in the entire part of the Boundary Waters affected by the 1999 blowdown. That ban goes into effect midnight Thursday.