Pagami Creek fire largest Minnesota fire since 1918
A fire that started with a bolt of lightning and a puff of smoke nearly a month ago jolted to life over the past few days, storming across 25 miles of forest, blackening 100,000 acres and showing little sign it's ready to stop.
Hundreds of campers have been escorted out of the 1.1 million-acre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness while others had to flee for their lives. More than 100 homes and 36 businesses have been evacuated on the eastern and southern reaches of the fire in Lake and Cook counties, as far east as the Sawbill Trail.
"Sometimes it's like snow falling, there's so much ash coming down. And the smoke is so thick it hurts your eyes and throat. But other times the wind switches and you can't tell there's a fire at all. It's kind of odd," said Sue Butler, owner of the Trestle Inn saloon on Crooked Lake.
Butler's is the last business open on Lake County Road 7, and officials have asked her to stay open to feed a public safety command post there.
"We'll stay as long as we can. Everyone past me is out of there now," she said.
The fire has burned across more than 156 square miles, more than double the land area of Duluth.
It's by far the largest forest fire in Minnesota since 1918, surpassing 2007's Ham Lake fire, which burned about 38,000 acres in Minnesota and another 38,000 in Ontario while also burning 163 buildings.
So far, the Pagami Creek fire has not destroyed any homes, and only one small structure has burned, a relief cabin for Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officers on Insula Lake.
Much of the eastern BWCAW has been closed, with only access points north and west of Ely and northeast of the Gunflint Trail remaining open.
Winds from the northwest today are expected to continue to push the fire south and east, generally toward Lake County Road 7.
"But the colder temperatures should really help. It's a lot harder for fire to spread when it's in the 50s than when it's in the 80s," said Doug Anderson, a spokesman for the inter-agency team battling the blaze. "People (fire officials) were pretty surprised when they saw that 100,000-acre number go up on the board. But I think there's some optimism out there now."
The fire is approaching the Lake and Cook county border on the east. Cook County Sheriff Mark Falk told a group gathered in Grand Marais on Tuesday night that the fire threat is low in his county but plans are in place if the fire continues to move east. Another public meeting is set for
11 a.m. this morning at the Poplar Lake fire hall on the Gunflint Trail, an area evacuated during the 2007 Ham Lake fire.
The region around the fire has seen little rain since July, and the severe drought has left trees, brush, grass and leaves bone dry and ready to burn. The fire also is just south of the areas hardest hit by the July 4, 1999, windstorm that toppled millions of trees in the wilderness, many of which remain ready to burn.
Scattered rain and thunderstorms moved across Minnesota's Arrowhead on Tuesday afternoon and may have helped slow the fire. While lower temperatures will help slow the fire, there's no major rainfall in the forecast. Fire officials said this fire may not be completely snuffed until winter snows fall.
The fire front was estimated to be eight miles wide and made a frighteningly fast 16-mile run on Monday, far outpacing fire crews' ability to keep up and spurring evacuations. Plume fires are known to create their own wind and grow so large that they become difficult to stop.
"Most of the acres burned, even as we adjusted the number today (Tuesday) probably happened on Monday," Anderson said. "It really didn't get up and go that far today."
A pilot and News Tribune photographer who watched the fire from 4,000 feet in the air Tuesday afternoon said it was nearly impossible to see how far east the fire had spread because so much smoke was being blown off the giant plume and spreading east.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has issued an advisory for people who live downwind, from Silver Bay through Grand Marais to Grand Portage, to limit their outdoor activities to avoid health issues from smoke and ash.
Smoke from the Pagami Creek fire, which was easily detected in Duluth and the Twin Cities last week, on Tuesday was reported throughout eastern Wisconsin and as far south as Chicago -- so thick the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and National Weather Service in Illinois issued a notice on the origin of the smoke.
Gov. Mark Dayton directed the Minnesota National Guard to assist in firefighting efforts. Four Blackhawk helicopters were ordered to the fire area to support firefighters with water drops where needed. The Duluth-based 148th fighter unit will provide refueling for the St. Paul-based helicopters.
The Blackhawks join the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' CL-215 water bombers as well as smaller aircraft and helicopters fighting the fire for the past week. A giant water-dropping helicopter also has been ordered along with additional ground crews.
Manitoba is sending two water-bombing airplanes to help.
Nearly 200 wildland firefighters were either on the fire line or on their way, with crews using canoes to portage to their fire lines or flying in on Forest Service float planes.
All roads north of the following route are closed, according to the Forest Service: Highway 1 from Forest Road 1468 east to Isabella; Wanless Road (FR 172) east to Lake County Road 7; Lake County Road 7 north to FR 354; FR 354 north to BWCAW boundary at Kawishiwi Lake.
The Pagami Creek fire started with a lightning strike Aug. 18, smoldered for a week or so and then grew to 130 acres on its own. Fire crews intentionally burned an additional 2,000 acres around the fire to keep it from growing into populated areas, especially north and west toward the Fernberg Road.
Fires in the wilderness generally are allowed to run their course because they renew the forest naturally. That was the initial policy with this fire as well, but Superior National Forest officials over the weekend began an all-out assault to stop the fire from growing. But it was too late, and officials say they didn't have enough firefighters or aircraft to stop the fire from exploding in size. Others said no amount of people or aircraft would have helped.
A fire ban remains in effect for the BWCAW during the day, with fires allowed only after 6 p.m.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources imposed a fire ban in all areas of northern Minnesota. The temporary burning restrictions mean the state will not give out burning permits for burning brush or yard waste until conditions improve. Small campfires in developed campfire pits or structures are allowed.