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m9768 BC-MN-GunflintTrailFire 5thLd-Writethru 05-10 0824

Shifting winds prompts another fire evacuation in Minn.

Eds: INSERTS 7th graf to give historical context for Gunflint Lodge; SUBS 15th graf to add rain outlook.

AP Photos MNAH101-111, WXS141-145, MNDUH101

By AMY FORLITI

Associated Press Writer

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ALONG THE GUNFLINT TRAIL, Minn. (AP) — Shifting winds prompted another mandatory evacuation on Thursday in northeastern Minnesota, where a wildfire has burned more 34 square miles and forced more than 100 people to flee.

When the winds began blowing from the northwest Thursday afternoon, the sheriff ordered the evacuation of the area around the landmark Gunflint Lodge, which is just east of the scenic Gunflint Trail that leads from Grand Marais into the wilderness.

Bill Paxton, a spokesman for the fire fighting effort, said the fire was "challenging" the containment lines. "They’re holding right now," he said. "We’re having some difficulty holding them, but they’re holding now."

The fire has already destroyed 45 structures. The shifting winds put another 100 buildings at risk, fire officials said. However, no one had been hurt since the fire started to burn on Saturday at a campsite in remote Ham Lake.

Paxton said the winds are gusting up to 20 miles an hour and the air remained hot and dry. Fire officials called Thursday a "red flag" day for fire danger in and near the protected Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Near the rustic Gunflint Lodge, on the south side of Gunflint Lake, the smoke from the fire had turned the sky the deep slate blue of an incoming thunderstorm. Between the sky and the trees, there was a ribbon of glowing orange from the fire.

The lodge was founded in 1925 deep in the wilderness of northeastern Minnesota at what was then the end of the Gunflint Trail. It’s remoteness was always part of its allure. Over the years it evolved from a rustic fishing resort to a luxury vacation destination, popular as a jumping off point for excursions into the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

Ardis David, 80, was eating at the lodge when the winds brought the fire within sight and the smoke rolled in overhead. "I’ve never seen a sky quite like that," she said. "Flames were coming off the ridge."

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Gloria Johnson, 59, watched the sky darken while she was working at the Trail Center and Black Bear Bar and Restuarant, about midway down the Gunflint Trail.

"It’s scary — not just for myself, but this is Cook County’s livelihood," she said. "We depend on the tourists in the summer."

After looking at the ominous sky, Johnson said she was going to prepare to evacuate even though her house was still about six miles from the fire.

"We’re nervous," she said, then began crying. "I’m emotional because I just lost my husband and so the thought of losing my house too is just too much."

On Thursday, the fire was burning an area that included parts of the BWCAW, Canada and private land.

On the northwest side of the lake on Wednesday, firefighters conducted a controlled burn of more than 4,000 acres in anticipation of Thursday’s wind shift. The burn was designed to rob the main fire of fuel and protect the lodges, homes and cabins on the south side of Gunflint Lake.

Thursday’s weather has been part of a trend since the fire first flared up at a campsite at remote Ham Lake on Saturday. A cooldown was forecast for Thursday night, but the best chance of rain wasn’t until Sunday.

"We’re back to the conditions we had in the first two days of the fire," said Daria Day, a spokeswoman for the agencies fighting the fire, on Thursday.

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A squad of elite firefighters has taken over command of the blaze. Nearly 450 firefighters from across the country were on the scene Thursday, with more expected. They are supported by several helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

The fire is in a section of Minnesota that has been in a prolonged drought. Further, downed trees from a huge windstrom in 1999 have provided the fire with additional fuel.

Also Thursday, the National Weather Service issued a fire weather watch due to low humidity and gusting winds for north-central and northeastern Minnesota through Thursday evening.

Specifically, the warning applied to all counties north of a line from Hinckley west to Brainerd and north to the Canada border and east to the Arrowhead region of the state.

The service said the fire danger in northern Minnesota would remain "very high to extreme" until significant rain falls on the area.

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On the Net:

Minnesota DNR Wildfire Information Center: http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/forestry/fire/index.html

Minnesota Incident Command System: http://www.mnics.org

Superior National Forest closure information: http://www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/superior/conditions

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