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Wildfire in BWCA still active, burning hot in dry weather

By Amy Forliti

Associated Press

ALONG THE GUNFLINT TRAIL, Minn. — If every big wildfire has a personality of its own, the one that has burned about 26 square miles in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness could be called "very active," said Dick Birger, a spokesman with the Incident Management Team working on the blaze.

"They are all dangerous," Birger said of wildfires. But as he pointed to dark plumes of smoke that billowed from the forest on Tuesday evening, he added, "This one is ... still very active. There’s still a lot of heat within this area."

The fire that has been burning at the end of the Gunflint Trail began threatening residential property to the east on Tuesday. It also flared up on its southwest edge, near Round Lake, and became active in the area north of Sea Gull Lake. Several residents who had been evacuated from areas near the trail’s end were escorted up the roadblocked Gunflint Trail to survey the damage, but a shift in the wind forced them back out.

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"We just got everyone out of there," said Gil Knight, a spokesman for the team managing the firefight. "It’s just way too dangerous."

Birger said the fire was moving at a rate of about one mile per hour.

Water-dropping aircraft attempted to beat back the new flames, which have destroyed around 40 structures ranging from sheds to multimillion-dollar lake homes. No one has been reported injured in the blaze.

Several new smoke plumes rising hundreds of feet into the air and pine trees going up in flames could be seen along the Gunflint Trail near Round, Sea Gull and Saganaga lakes. Ashes fell from the sky at Gunflint Lake, and smoke masked the sun in the evening, turning it into a pink orb that hung in the haze. Sprinklers could be seen dousing the rooftops of several houses and cabins.

Still, outfitters further down the trail were upbeat, saying they hadn’t seen a decrease in bookings because of the fire.

"In the big picture of things, the Boundary Waters is a million acres," said David Seaton, owner of Hungry Jack Canoe Outfitters and the spokesman for the Gunflint Trail Association of outfitters and merchants. "This fire represents less than 2 percent of the Boundary Waters."

His business is 20 miles away from the fire that officials say might have started Saturday at a campground in Ham Lake, about 31 miles northwest of Grand Marais.

"We have actually taken a lot of reservations from all over the country," Seaton said. "I had one guy call that said he wanted to make his reservation now, because he wanted us to know that he was keeping the faith."

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The fire was only 5 percent contained Tuesday, said Carson Berglund, a spokesman for the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids, and there’s an elevated chance of more fires throughout the summer and fall.

Federal meteorologist Steve Marien, who makes fire predictions for the interagency fire community for an area that includes Minnesota, said a combustible mix of factors will remain at work in northern Minnesota.

There are still plenty of downed tress left over from a huge windstorm in 1999, despite controlled burns and a large fire at Cavity Lake in 2006. At the same time, northern Minnesota remains in a prolonged drought and warming trend.

"Until those (precipitation) deficits are evaluated a little bit more, any short-term period of warm and windy conditions are gong to create the large fire potential," Marien said.

The overall fire danger won’t drop considerably until those blowdown trees rot further into the ground and the area gets enough rain or snow to overcome the drought, he said. There was no rain in the immediate forecast.

There are more than 4,500 square miles of protected wilderness in northeastern Minnesota. The scenic Gunflint Trail is a 57-mile dead-end two-lane highway leading from Grand Marais to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and other popular, remote vacation destinations.

More than 350 firefighters from across the country were on the scene Tuesday as the fire stood at 16,266 acres. More firefighters were pouring in, and about 500 were expected to eventually arrive on the scene.

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