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An aerial view of the wildfire that started south of Ely on Thursday afternoon. The fire probably was started by downed powerlines and grew at such a rapid rate that it threatened the community of Ely, prompting evacuations of the southern areas of the city. For more photos, see pages A5 and B6. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Air, ground crews draw fire line to protect Ely

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Crews this afternoon are battling a fast-moving forest fire just outside Ely that apparently started when a vehicle drove over a downed power line.

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Eyewitnesses in Ely said flames could be seen from the city just before 3 p.m. and smoke was enveloping the town.

St. Louis County Commissioner Mike Forsman of Ely said the strong winds have blown the fire to within a quarter mile of Ely by about 3:15 p.m. He said fire engine crews from Ely, Babbitt, the U.S. Forest Service, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and numerous township volunteer fire departments are making a fire line on the southeast side of Ely.

"I'm standing here watching the fire blow right toward my house. We're concerned... But they are setting up a pretty good fire line on the edge of town. I think they can hold it if it comes this far,'' Forsman said. "There's a lot of ash falling."

The fire started about 1:45 p.m. along Minnesota Highway 1 about one mile south of Ely, said Jean Goad, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids.

Fire-engine crews, helicopters and two CL-215 water-bombing airplanes were trying to douse the fire that already had expanded to an estimated 20 acres by 2:30 p.m.

Highway 1 has been closed.

"They're hitting as hard as they can. There are some evacuations south of town. They are calling in 'dozers and more engines,'' Goad said. "It's very windy out there."

The fire started on Superior National Forest land, she said.

Grant Kleven said he was driving his linen-service delivery truck on Highway 1 when he saw another vehicle hit the downed power line.

"The line sort of bounced up and sparked, and the sparks started a fire in the ditch. It hit a pine tree and it just went up instantly. ... The fire just went like crazy. I had to back my truck out of there to avoid the flames," he said. "I'm sitting in Ely now and there's ash falling on me. The smoke just keeps coming over the city."

Winds were blowing from the south at 22 mph this afternoon, gusting to 35 mph, according to the National Weather Service website.

While most of the Northland has received ample rain of late, the Arrowhead remains in a very dry period.

"We've just paged out our rescue squad to help with some evacuations," St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman said. "It's growing rapidly and we don't have a lot of information yet."

Paul Ivancich, owner of Dairy Queen in Ely, said he could see smoke from his store, which is a few blocks from Minnesota Highway 1.

"It's pretty smoky," Ivancich said. "And it's a south wind. But we're OK. We've got a little bit of soot floating around our parking lot. Downtown is fairly clear. It's just down here by Highway 1. We've got airplanes and helicopters flying over, dumping stuff on this thing."

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