On Wednesday, firefighters hit the blaze from the air, using two large Canadian water-drop airplanes, two Minnesota-based airplanes, and a Minnesota National Guard helicopter.
The Blackhawk helicopter is one of two activated last weekend by Gov. Pawlenty. It flew dozens of trips over Fay lake, scooping 640 gallons of water at a time. The goal was to hold the fire in place, and keep the gusty southwest winds from pushing the fire closer to the Gunflint Trail.
It's basically a holding action that officials say will be difficult to keep up, without some cooperation from Mother Nature. The fire area needs rain, and plenty of it, according to DNR fire specialist Doug Miedtke.
"It's going to continue to burn until we get some significant rainfall. And we haven't got that in the near-term forecast, at least through the weekend," says Miedtke. "As long as it stays dry, as long as we don't get significant rain, this fire's just going to continue to burn."
The other evening we could see the fire jump from tree to tree, and explosions of red off in the distance.Chris Steele, who owns a home on Seagull Lake
The fire is burning, and spreading through blowdown. These are often large trees that blew down in July of 1999, and have been dried to become ideal tinder for fire. In some places, fire has burned through the blowdown area into the standing forest nearby.
So far, the fire's burned poorly in standing forest. But Miedtke says that, too, could change in time.
"The longer we go without rain, the longer that area is going to dry as well. And the hotter fires are going to become. So as the summer progresses the fire's going to move more easily through the standing timber, just as it's moving through the blowdown now," says Miedtke.
And there's still plenty of blowdown to burn. There are pockets near the fire's southern end, and more across the Gunflint Trail, should the fire reach that point.
In fact, Miedtke says the fire burns so intensely in blowdown that it's been burning backwards into the wind, where blowdown timber covers the Boundary Waters Canoe Area all the way back to Ely.
"Two days ago the fire backed almost half a mile into the wind. Yesterday, probably another quarter-mile into the wind. And so you are just going to get that steady slow progression against the wind as long as it's in that blowdown," he says.
However, Miedtke says firefighters should be able to pinch the blaze near lakes, if it ever gets a chance to make a significant push west.
A new, more experienced team took over the fire's management Wednesday. The Level 2 team is one of 17 in the nation. They take on the difficult fires, like this one.
What makes it difficult is the combination of an extremely volatile fuel, and the homes and resorts nearby. The Level 2 team could double the number of administrators on the fire.
Area residents have been waiting and watching nervously. Chris and Lynne Steele live on a high hilltop overlooking Seagull Lake. Chris Steele says he began to worry Sunday, when the fire could be seen jumping across Seagull Lake islands.
"The other evening we could see the fire jump from tree to tree, and explosions of red off in the distance," Steele recalls. "And it's times like that that keep you up very late and make for very difficult sleeping."
The Steeles have installed a property-wide sprinkler system that can wet down their buildings if fire approaches. They've written a personal disaster plan, and they've made a checklist of what they'll grab if the word comes to evacuate.
"Most everything that we have can be replaced. But if we have to leave we will take the important stuff with us -- the papers, the photos, the important documents, and leave everything else behind," Steele says. "When we turn on the sprinkler system, hopefully that will save our property."
Like many summer residents here, the Steeles have another home to go to if they're forced out. But many resort owners are year-round residents. They could face losing both their homes and their livelihood if this fire can't be held in place.