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In the line of fire: Some residents evacuate, others dig in as Pagami Creek fire creeps closer

Joyce Scott hauls balsam fir trees cut by her son Nate Scott (right) as they work to create a fire line around their home on Nine Mile Lake east of Finland on Wednesday. The family was doing what they could to take preventative measures against the fire. (Bob King /

NINE MILE LAKE -- Patty and Gregg Scott spent four years building their log home here, on their own, from the ground up, and they weren't about to sit around and wait for the Pagami Creek fire to burn it down.

So on Wednesday, joined by friends and family, they grabbed chain saws and a skid-steer and fire pumps and hoses -- and they hacked out a line in the forest where they would fight the fire on their terms.

"This is our dream. We built this with our own hands. It's not just a house," Patty Scott said as she hauled a balsam fir tree out of their woods. "We have people with trailers who are ready to help us get out if we need to. ... But it's kind of important we save this place. We'll give it our best shot."

The Pagami Creek fire was five miles or more away. But while the fire stopped roaring Wednesday, thanks to cold weather and a little rain, it was still inching closer to their home.

Smoke hung in the air as the Scotts hurried their work. Sprinklers and fire hoses pumping water out of the lake would create a damp, watered-down micro-climate around their property, using the principle that saved so many homes and resorts during the 2007 Ham Lake fire along the Gunflint Trail.

Three generations of the Scott family worked to cut enough trees and brush to form a defensible line around their land, an area that might stop a creeping fire that wasn't too hot. They hoped their metal roof would prevent falling hot ash and cinders from burning the place down.

The Scotts did take time out to welcome their neighbors and new tenants, Jack and Holly Morris, who were forced to evacuate their home just up the road at Wilson Lake, now behind the line that Lake County officials have ordered evacuated.

The fire was just a few miles from Wilson Lake on Wednesday and northwest winds were blowing it slowly closer.

The Morrises will stay with the Scotts, unless they are evacuated too. In the meantime, propane-powered pumps are supplying water for sprinklers that are keeping their Wilson Lake home wet.

"Just about everything we have is in that home. We grabbed what we could. ... My dad's carvings. Some photos. Our motorcycles," Holly Morris said, noting the couple flew back to Minnesota on Tuesday from Atlanta, where they were visiting a new grandchild. "It all seemed to blow up so fast. We rushed back as fast as we could. It's terrible not knowing if it's even still there. But they did let us go back in for two hours to gather what we could."

Slower growth, but still out of control

A little snow, sleet and rain fell on the fire Wednesday, but only enough to slow it down and certainly not enough to put it out. Temperatures rose only into the upper 40s, the kind of cooler, moist air that makes it harder for a fire to get up and run like it did Monday in 80-degree temperatures.

"It's a pause. It's a lull. It's a good chance to get crews and airplanes on it and do some work. But it's not at all contained or controlled," said Mary Shedd, a spokeswoman for the interagency team battling the blaze.

Bulldozers worked just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to dig fire lines and trenches on the southern flank of the fire, north of Isabella, using old logging roads for access into the thick forest. Crews also set up water pumps and fire hose to bolster their defensive line, but strong winds were blowing down burned trees, called snags, making the work even more dangerous than usual.

Meanwhile multiple aircraft dropped water on the fire front at the southeast head, or front, not far from Silver Island Lake.

Crews also worked on the west end of the fire, near the starting point at Pagami Creek, to broaden fire lines in case winds switch and blow the fire back to the west, toward the highly developed cabin and resort area outside Ely.

More than 325 people were battling the blaze as of Wednesday -- with crews from Minnesota, New Jersey, Montana, Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin and California -- and more ground crews were on the way. Aircraft from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the National Guard, Manitoba and western states were working to fight it.

So far, only one small DNR cabin on Insula Lake has burned. But with clusters of homes, cabins and resorts just southeast of the fire -- and the infamous blowdown area of dead, dry trees left by the July 1999 windstorm just north -- there's little room for comfort now if the fire makes another big run.

"We don't want this fire to grow one bit more," Shedd said. "But it's going to be warming up this weekend and it's staying dry. That's not what we need."

Nearly 100 people attended a meeting Wednesday morning at the Isabella Community Hall to hear Lake County and Forest Service officials explain what the situation was.

Fire officials on Wednesday corrected the number of homes actually evacuated to just 36 addresses south and east of the fire, down from 136 reported on Tuesday.

About 231 homes, cabins, shacks, taverns, and resorts/outfitters are in the area to the south and east of the fire considered in possible danger, and Lake and Cook county officials have a plan ready to move those people out as well.

What went wrong?

Residents have asked pointed questions at recent community meetings on how the fire got so big so fast on Sunday and Monday after growing slowly for so long. Some also wondered why the Forest Service simply didn't put the fire out when it was small, nearly one month ago.

The fire was detected Aug. 18, after it started by lightning strike, and it smoldered for days. When it grew to 130 acres, with the surrounding forest in drought conditions, wildfire experts decided to intentionally light more forest on fire to get rid of fuel that the wildfire might use to move into developed areas such as the Fernberg Road.

One week ago, only about 2,000 acres had burned, and everything seemed under control. The idea to fight fire with fire seemed to work well, and there was little criticism of the plan to let the fire burn on its own to help renew the forest in the wilderness where there is no private property in harm's way.

It was hoped the fire would simply blow back on itself and die as cool, wet autumn weather moved in.

But the forecast rain never showed up. September northwest winds, usually cool and moist, instead came hot and dry. Last weekend, with temperatures soaring into the 80s and the forest already in a severe drought, unusually strong westerly winds blew the fire into an inferno that burned east across more than 20 miles of forest as fire crews could only watch in awe.

The primary objective of Superior National Forest officials -- to keep the fire within the confines of the BWCAW -- failed sometime Monday or Tuesday when the fire roared over the imaginary line on the map.

"Plans change every day, based on the weather, and the weather that was expected didn't happen," Shedd said. "The models that they depended on just didn't figure on how hot and how dry it was and how much the wind came up and which direction it came from. The probability of it spreading this far was supposed to be 3 percent."

"They used the best information they had at the time," Shedd added. "But it wasn't good enough."

The Pagami Creek fire has now burned across 101,000 acres, more than 150 square miles., and it continued to creep south and east on Wednesday. It is the largest wildfire by acres in Minnesota since 1918, although it is far from the largest fire in the history of northern Minnesota.

Forest history experts like the University of Minnesota's Lee Frelich have studied tree growth and other factors and discovered massive, half-million-acre fires that burned through canoe country over the past 400 years.

The disastrous 1918 Moose Lake/Cloquet fire burned over an estimated 1,500 square miles, destroying 30 communities and killing nearly 500 people along the way.