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Fire crews, weather keep Pagami Creek blaze at bay

A crew from Klamath Falls, Ore., working with Division X, heads into the wilderness Thursday near Island Lake, north of Isabella, to fight the Pagami Creek fire. (Bob King /

FOREST CENTER -- Division X was holding its own Thursday, with crews from across the country rolling in and hiking out to battle the south flank of the Pagami Creek fire.

Calm winds, low temperatures and higher humidity were helping Tom Shackman, the Division X fire boss, make progress along the part of the fire nearest Isabella, Highway 1 and Finland.

Crews with pick axes and chain saws and miles of fire hose connected to four-wheel-drive firetrucks fanned out to widen a protective line in case northerly winds developed and pushed the fire south.

Shackman had a Blackhawk helicopter and three other aircraft dropping water on his 9-mile front of the fire that had calmed down enough to allow crews to drive into the burned area. Bulldozers and brush cutters also joined the fight just outside Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Other crews worked on spot fires and smoldering trees.

"This is Day 8 for me. And it's getting a little better, finally," said Shackman, who normally is a forest recreation specialist on the Chippewa National Forest near Walker.

It was Shackman's third big fire this summer, with earlier trips to Arizona and Texas to help out there. But this one hit much closer to home.

Shackman got his start in the Forest Service in Ely and in Isabella, where he used to work at the now-closed ranger station, and he knows this country pretty well. He still knows some of the families that live just outside the Division X line he's ordered to hold.

"I think that's why they wanted me here," Shackman said. "This is the line that they absolutely don't want to see move any farther out."

The Pagami Creek fire grew very little Wednesday and Thursday, still estimated to have burned over about 101,000 acres. The fire raged so hot in some places Sunday and Monday that it consumed everything in its path -- even the topsoil right down to bare rock -- for miles on end. A moonscape with standing black trees, as one firefighter described it.

But not all of the forest here has burned. Pockets of green spruce and balsam remain, and alder and brush line some swamps.

"It's funny how you go through and it's miles of these burned toothpicks, just nothing left, and then you go a little farther and it's green, almost like no fire came through," said Ted Krueger, chief of the Morse-Fall Lake Volunteer Fire Department near Ely, who was here helping smother flare-ups along with crews from Wisconsin, New Jersey, California and Minnesota.

More than 430 firefighters from across the country are now battling the blaze.

The dramatic part of this fire is, hopefully, over, Shackman said, and crews will be left to do mop-up work for weeks, until snow covers the forest floor and the final embers are snuffed.

But that may be wishful thinking, and fire officials note they have little of the blaze truly contained if conditions change.

The forest here remains in a severe drought, with bogs and rivers nearly dry. Temperatures are expected to rise back into the 60s today and Saturday. Strong south winds, gusting to 20 mph today and 30 mph Saturday, could rekindle another rushing monster along the 20-mile northern front of the fire.

"We've had two good days, but the next couple of days will challenge us," said Doug Anderson, a spokesman for the multi-agency team fighting the fire. "This thing could get up and go again, this time moving north."

So far there has been no effort to fight the blaze on the north side, Anderson said, deep in the BWCAW. But that's about to change.

"We've got hotshot crews moving in there, canoeing in there, and establishing lines," Shackman said. A south wind "blows it away from our area and up into the wilderness. That's better than coming this way, but we don't want to see it go any direction."

So called hotshot teams are full-time wildland firefighters, as opposed to traditional "smokechasers," who usually have other jobs for state and federal resource agencies and fight fires only as needed. As good as some of the western state firefighters are, however, it's been back to the basics for many of them, who had to be taught how to paddle a canoe.

About three dozen addresses -- homes, cabins, businesses -- remain evacuated on the southeast edge of the fire, and so far only one shack has been burned with no one hurt. The fire started Aug. 18 with a lightning strike and, after growing slowly for weeks, on Sunday and Monday expanded into the state's largest wildfire since 1918.

Much of the central BWCAW remains closed to canoeists, but areas north and west of Ely and some entry points along the Gunflint Trail remain open, and most resorts and lodges remain open.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken are scheduled to fly over the fire today.